I occasionally get questions that at first glance may seem impertinent or insensitive when posed to a person with Stage 4 cancer. But I am not startled or offended. Afterall, I write unreservedly in my blog about my mortality, and, most gratifyingly, my friends ask questions out of genuine concern and a desire to understand more fully what I am going through.
Recently, a close friend asked:
“Dona, you ever wish that you had died suddenly from an accident or heart attack instead of going through these years of suffering, not knowing when the medical team has no more resources to keep you alive?”
An insightful question I have been pondering ever since.
There was a time when I would have said absolutely, I would rather die suddenly than go through cancer treatments. After all, what other illness fills us with dread as we wonder about lumps, difficulty swallowing, or unrelenting back pain?
Another friend, a physician, told me about a patient that showed up at his medical practice with grave concerns about a skin condition. The doctor’s diagnosis was chronic, severe psoriasis. He told his patient the condition would cause pain, discomfort, interfere with sleep, and make it difficult to concentrate. There would be no cure. The patient relied, “Thank God it’s not cancer!”
We do not walk around fearing heart attacks, gallbladder attacks, car accidents, lupus, or sundry illnesses that can be very devastating and even fatal. It is cancer that fills us with fear. Within literature or human discourse there is no other disease used as a personifier of something malignant, evil, or spreading. (“Bitterness grew like a cancer until it consumed her.” “His hunger for power was a cancer that could not be stopped until he destroyed everyone in his way.”) We use the word cancer because it is a word loaded with all kinds of imagined suffering and dread of when and how it will take our lives. And unlike the animal kingdom we humans have existential angst and future awareness, realizing we are mortal and will leave behind loved ones, future dreams and plans and meaningful work.
Getting back to my friend’s question……
Early on when I discovered I had metastatic breast cancer I wrote a blog post titled “I like the new metastatic me.” It had nothing to do with being masochistic or pathological. It had all to do with welcoming the change of perspective on what was, and what was not, important in life. Consequently, I found a greater peace of mind because I had less things that I was holding onto and less to become anxious about. The new metastatic me simplified life and found me focusing on joy and gratefulness.
Although my cancer had progressed from Stage 3 to Stage 4, I was happy to find that my character development had moved from stage 1 to stage 2. Well, maybe Stage 0.5 to Stage 1.
That was then, this is now. In the last four years there certainly has been more suffering than I would have anticipated when I was first diagnosed with metastatic cancer. But I can say with confidence that after 4-5 years of living with this awful disease that I’m thankful I was not taken suddenly.
I am more others-centered now than 4 years ago. My character development has moved from stage 2 to stage 3. Well, maybe 1 to 2. You get my intent. I am trying to walk the line between braggadocios and false humility. The point is that I have more empathy and heart sickness when I hear of others suffering, whether from the terror-stricken children of Ukraine, the starving children of Somalia, or the grieving parent of a loss child or husband. I used to avoid reading BBC international news (I have an app). Too much tragedy. Now, I read and pray because it disrupts my own suffering and allows, what Mother Theresa called, “my heart to be broken with what breaks the heart of Christ.”
And this suffering somehow reminds me of the Great Hope.
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Before unpacking this, I must reiterate that the grace of God has been apparent every step away. He deserves the credit and glory.
Suffering can breed empathy:
When people are faced with a terrible diagnosis there is a choice that must be made. Will the rest of life be driven by bitterness and anger; resenting the unfairness? As I have heard on more than one occasion, “I took good care of myself: ate healthy, exercised frequently, managed stress, and even served God so how did this happen to me?”
As I noted above, there is an aspect of my chronic suffering that has bred empathy and compassion for those who suffer, whether from cancer, other ailments, heartbreaks, betrayals, extreme losses. My prayer life has been richer and more spontaneous as I read the news or talk with people who are hurting. And for those times I forget I have cancer as I focus on them.
I do not know why suffering has produced empathy, but I have a couple of theories.
The God of the cross
We have a God that suffers with us. The late John Stott, theologian and pastor of All Souls Church in London often said he could not worship a God who had not experienced extreme suffering.
“The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and, therefore, unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.”
I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross’. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?
John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 335-336
In summary, my metastatic cancer first gave me a new perspective on what, and what was not, important in life. Consequently, I found a greater peace of mind because I had less things that I was holding onto and less to become anxious about. The new metastatic me simplified life and found me focusing on joy and gratefulness.
Second, suffering has allowed me to empathize with the suffering of others more deeply. This new level of compassion is both heart-breaking and life-giving in equal measure. I am grateful.
My character development has moved from Stage 1 to Stage 3! Will I ever get to Stage 4? Not in this earthly tent!
And this brings me, finally, to the point of all this. The end result of suffering is not character development but hope. (Romans 5:3-4) Hope in what? Eternal life and that time when Christ will “make all sad things untrue.”1 A cold, pitiless universe, full of random disease and tragedy, without God provides little or no incentive to develop character or hope.
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
1 Corinthians 15:19
Yes, oh yes, I am thankful, suffering or no suffering, for every moment the Lord had graced me with!
1Originally spoken by Sam to Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Return of the King. Often quoted by Tim Keller and NT Wright in their reflections on the resurrection.
In a recent post Dona described how Carolyn Madanat was processing overwhelming grief from the sudden loss of her husband, Labib Madanat, in November 2021. At the time of Labib’s death, Carolyn had been recently ordained as a minister in the Anglican Church in England and was four months into her first post as a curate. As part of this initial apprenticeship she was assigned, as all curates are, to write reflections on significant events during her curacy and the impact on her prayer life and relationship with God. She shared this reflection with Dona and me. Though painful to read, it is just too insightful and redemptive not to share. With her permission and approval, we post it here.
I am no expert on the stages of grief or how trauma is processed, but Carolyn’s narrative of the months following Labib’s passing show both key waypoints and important routines that will help any Christian; both those suffering overwhelming loss or trauma, and friends and family walking alongside the sufferer. This journal is particularly helpful in showing how a grief-stricken heart and often exhausted mind can still use prayer to engage the Spirit; “reminding us of the eternal truths of God’s goodness and his steadfast love towards us.”
And so, again with her permission, I added text boxes to highlight those waypoints and insights.
Defiant Hope in the Face of Overwhelming Loss
Four and a half months into my curacy, my husband died suddenly whilst on a ministry trip to Iraq.
We received the devastating news by telephone call: thirty minutes after hearing that he had experienced a seizure and was unconscious, a follow-up call came telling us that he had died. I had no time to begin to process what had happened as I had to make immediate plans to travel to Jordan with our five children, where Labib’s family were arranging to repatriate his body from Najaf to Amman. Once there, we were drawn into the communal grief and mourning of family, church, and friends as we prayed and waited for his body to be released and flown to us. The funeral was held hours after his arrival; I was still in a state of shock and disbelief but Labib’s colleagues and family, in the midst of their own grief, carried the burden of planning and leading the service.
In the first few weeks I felt incredibly disorientated. For the ten days that we were in Jordan there was an established ritual of gathering with the extended family each day from morning to late night, receiving people who came to give condolences. It was emotionally and physically exhausting, trying to give comfort as much as receive it, but it provided a structure for our time and interactions with people. The constant stream of calls and messages brought assurance that many were praying for us, and this carried us through the early days when we could not form prayers for ourselves.
The importance of receiving counsel, even leadership, in deciding on a way forward.
Back in England, as per the norm, people gave us ‘space’ and showed kindness and solidarity in a very different way: cards instead of conversation, food left on the doorstep instead of shared communal meals. It was my culture, but I felt very alone and found myself trying to initiate contact with people so that I could explain why I needed them to keep speaking to me!
In retrospect, I really needed pastoral leadership; I didn’t want to be left to decide if and when I should return to work and ministry. I know that the intention was to not make assumptions about what would be best for me, but I was exhausted and needed someone else to tell me to take time to rest and recover. In the end it was my prayer triplet and a trusted family friend and counsellor who stepped into that role and helped me navigate those early days.
Stillness and quiet were not my friends. At first, I found it very hard to even read Scripture without crying, but I turned to the psalms that Labib and I had read together so many times and they became my prayers; I didn’t have to find my own words to say because the psalmists had done it for me. I found the discipline of a daily quiet time very hard to maintain, so I took long walks and trusted that God was with me and that He was somehow ministering to me. I honestly didn’t feel it particularly, but deep down I knew and believed it was so.
Advent began soon after we returned to the UK and I remember lighting the first candle, Hope, as an act of defiance against the enemy who had stolen from our family. There was something comforting in the symbolism and ritual of lighting the candles each night. What had previously been a fun family activity, took on new significance. However I felt, I wanted to declare -in this small way- that I still had faith in God whose light shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome by it. The ‘waiting’ of Advent resonated with me in a new way: it wasn’t about counting down to a day or a week of celebrations but anticipating the day when Jesus would return and make all things right, forever.
As I returned to work in the New Year, the daily routine of prayer with the staff team was an act of obedience. Often, I didn’t feel like praying but the familiar words of the morning prayer liturgy allowed me to participate even when my brain fog made it hard for me to concentrate for long. My prayer requests were for very practical things, usually focused on the needs of our children– for comfort, for the ability to sleep, for strength to get through each day, for stamina to sit through school and college classes; many prayers were answered, including some I hadn’t voiced out loud. I didn’t talk to God much about my own feelings of grief and exhaustion, but I knew that he knew, and that was enough. Throughout this time, I prayed weekly with the members of my prayer triplet which was a lifeline; other friends and colleagues messaged with offers of help and the promise of ongoing prayer. It was one way that I experienced what it means to be part of the Body of Christ and to belong to one another. God was taking care of me through his people, through my people.
Not long after Labib’s death, a friend who had also been bereaved sent me some books, including one on lament. As I read the book, I knew that I accepted it all in principle, but realised that it was the first time that I had actually thought about and experienced what it means to lament. I wanted to be able to express my sadness, disappointment and even anger, but without falling into despair. Mark Vroegop talks about a four-step process that God leads us through in grief and lament:
I still struggled with the idea of complaining to God. Having spent so much time with Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan and hearing their stories of losing multiple family members and friends, not to mention homes and livelihoods, I didn’t see how my loss could be compared to theirs. What I’ve started to realise is that lament isn’t about whether my suffering is sufficiently bad enough to warrant a complaint to God. Instead, it’s declaring, with God, that all is not right in the world and knowing that this grieves him too, while remembering that sickness, death, pain, and injustice do not have the final word.
As Vroegop says, “Lament is rooted in what we believe. It is a prayer loaded with theology. Christians affirm that the world is broken, God is powerful, and He will be faithful.”
Through the year, I have become more aware of the role of lament in both my individual prayers and our corporate prayers as a church family. When the war broke out in Ukraine, when an earthquake killed hundreds in Afghanistan, my intercessions have included a strong note of indignation at the injustices that are being suffered in a world that is under the curse of sin and death; I’ve been led to boldly ask God to intervene as only he can, affirming that he is mighty and able to work good for his people. I’ve come to realise that part of our calling as God’s people is to lament the state of our world and to call on God to act.
I had to spend a few days in Jerusalem, sorting some of Labib’s paperwork, and connected with old friends and colleagues who shared the challenges they were facing in their own ministries. I found myself increasingly praying and interceding for them – for reconciliation and unity between church members and leaders, for Bible translation work, for the Gospel to touch the hearts of the non-Christian majority. Although I couldn’t step into the huge void that Labib had left as a leader in the region, I felt as though God was rekindling the love and concern I had held for the people of the Middle East for so many years when we lived and ministered among them. It was an invitation to stay connected to what God was still doing in and through brothers and sisters there, even if Labib was no longer with us. Since the visit, I have been interceding more often for ministers and ministries in that region that God has put on my heart. It has helped me to keep my own difficulties in perspective and to see the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world.
Over Lent I put together material for a Lent course for St Paul’s and the theme was the spiritual practices of solitude and silence. These are disciplines that even prior to Labib’s death I have found quite challenging. I am someone who works well as part of a team, and this includes praying with other people; my night-time prayer routine with Labib was an important part of our shared life together. As mentioned earlier, I’ve found quiet times particularly difficult in this season and the thought of sitting in silence with God just listening and waiting has felt quite unattainable, not least because poor sleep at night means I have a tendency to fall asleep if I sit still for too long. During the course we reflected on the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 and how he reached a point where, before he could even hear God, he needed time to recover from the traumatic experience he’d just been through; God ministered to him by providing food and the opportunity to rest.
It was very helpful for me to be reminded that sometimes we can be in a place where we just need to trust God and let him take care of our physical needs so that we will then be able to hear him speak. The combination of experiencing a sudden trauma and then needing to carry the emotional and practical needs of the family, in addition to returning to pastoral work, had left me feeling depleted after a couple of months. The Lent reflections released me from feeling guilty about not being able to sustain my quiet devotional times and allowed me to rest in God and trust him to carry me through that season. As my sleeping patterns have improved I’ve had more capacity for silence and individual prayer, although I still favour prayer walking over sitting.
The final reflection I have on how my prayer life and relationship with God has been shaped over this last year, following the loss of Labib, relates to Passion week and particularly Holy Saturday. Coming from a ‘low-church’ tradition, my engagement with Passion week has primarily focused on Good Friday’s Hour at the Cross and then the joy and celebration of Resurrection Sunday. This year, I co-led the Hour at the Cross service and found it very moving; I also had the joy of baptising a new believer on Sunday morning – as part of our Easter family celebration service. However, what resonated with me for perhaps the first time was the poignancy of Easter Saturday. Up until this year, it’s simply been an in-between day that I’ve not thought too much about, but it felt very different this time around. Holy Saturday seemed to encompass all that we had been experiencing over the previous months, which was the feeling of being somehow suspended between two worlds: one of overwhelming loss and one of defiant hope. A friend sent me a poem that finally put into words everything that I felt but hadn’t been able to express. It wasn’t that I suddenly had answers to everything, but I had a space to hold the questions:
I realized that trust in God’s goodness and feelings of sadness are not mutually exclusive; lament is a path to praise that travels through disappointment and pain, and being okay with not knowing everything. It is accepting the co-existence of grief and hope; mourning what has been lost yet grateful for what remains. Part of prayer, I have realized, is surrendering to God the questions we don’t have answers for and having the assurance that these questions are in safe hands. It is having enough confidence in God’s goodness and steadfast love towards us that we don’t need to settle for ‘glib’ answers to those questions.
I have already seen the importance of this in pastoral situations where there is a great deal of suffering and hardship, and the inevitable questions that accompany it deserve to be heard and held respectfully. Instead of trying to scramble for answers to ‘ease’ the pain, for myself or others, I want to simply acknowledge the presence of God in our pain and his promise to transform it and redeem it for our good and his glory, if we allow him to. Vroegop writes that: ‘the gospel empowers the followers of Jesus to enter the dark moments of people’s lives. Those who know the story of hope and who believe in God’s goodness can be conduits of his grace’.
The grace of lament is helping me to navigate this painful season of our lives and is also giving me a language to use in the face of widespread injustice and suffering in the world. It doesn’t minimalise or ignore the anguish but as we orient ourselves towards God and give voice to the pain we feel, his Spirit reminds of the eternal truths of God’s goodness and his steadfast love towards us.
Bibliography and references
Jenae, D, When Mountains Crumble, Moody Publishers, 2022.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 2:3
Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.
But how do we experience comfort in suffering? Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort? Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests. Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.
He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.
We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship. Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.
1: We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it
We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God. Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination. Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.” Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.
2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful
Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.
3: Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.
We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want. We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.
Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”
He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed. I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family. At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion. He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God. And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.
4: Suffering is not understood as having any value
A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’
When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”. I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course. In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.
But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering. I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced. A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.
In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times. As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things. I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it. And isn’t this an imitation of life? We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble. We feel like giving up. But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary. And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.
I have a friend who was quoting an elderly relative to me once. The relative lived in a nursing home. The quote went something like this: “Sometimes I imagine that while I am living here I am in one of heaven’s waiting rooms.” I think we would all have to admit that she had to be one of the most positive and optimistic women we have ever heard. There are a lot of ways that this post could thematically be approached based on that one comment but I want to talk about waiting rooms.
The nature of waiting rooms
I usually do not mind waiting rooms if I am not hurry to be somewhere else after the appointment. Being a people watcher and communicator waiting rooms afford me many possibilities of entertainment. Admitting however that cell phones have changed the human interaction potential in waiting rooms, I still find the scene unusual enough to be interesting. I imagine myself sitting like an obedient dog with tail wagging and tongue hanging out hoping some human will pay attention to me and rub me behind my ear. I don’t just start talking to anyone. I look around, size up the mood of the waiting room crowd and wait for an opening and then off to the races I go. It is amazing what you can learn from people’s stories or opinions. And if you know me, you know that I am not short of my own.
The Phlebotomy waiting room
Last week I walked into the Phlebotomy waiting room to have blood drawn. It was crowded. Every seat was taken but there was one left for me. I sized up the mood. It was grim and motivated me to send up a quick prayer on behalf of my fellow cancer patients who needed what I needed – encouragement – before seeing their oncologist, surgeon, or oncology radiologist. All ages were represented but everyone looked old. You know how not smiling or talking makes the lines around our mouth droop down so we either look sad or mad? Well, if you did not know that – you know it now. If you are over 50 and don’t want to look 70 then smile more often. It makes everyone look younger. I ought to know. I have had deep laugh lines since realizing I wasn’t going to be young forever. My children and even my husband would say at times, “What are you mad about?” This was not fair as my only fault was that I was not smiling and not smiling apparently made me look like I was mad when I was just feeling and looking neutral, or so I thought. I have defended myself enough that I no longer get those comments.
Well, anyway, back to the scene in the phlebotomy waiting room where I was among the most isolated looking and silent group of individuals I had seen yet in a waiting room since my cancer diagnosis. 15 minutes into my silent wait something changed and it happened so quickly and dramatically that I had to ask a woman later on in the day who had been there whether she noticed what I noticed. She didn’t hesitate to agree that something odd was at work. Here is what happened: A woman walked into the waiting room and the man next to me noticed that there was nowhere for her to sit. He got up out of his seat and said for her to sit down in his seat. She was several feet from him so the interaction was heard and witnessed by all of us. She said, “That is alright, I have been traveling in a car to get here for two hours and don’t mind standing”. This older gentleman was having none of it. He insisted and she capitulated. The moment she sat down, the gentleman’s name was called to have his blood drawn. And it was at that moment that the entire waiting room burst into laughter. Why? I am not sure. Maybe these folks and I included were unsuspectingly waiting for an uplifting moment to bring us out of ourselves. The sweet irony of this man’s good deed seemed to earn him a surprising reward or a dispensation of grace- He no longer had to wait. He was called and in! Ok, that was cool enough for this sad looking group but it wasn’t the end of the story. As soon as the laughter died out, strangers started talking to each other. I mean everyone was talking except for one cell phone engrossed person. People were talking to those next to them and to those across from them and the conversations were animated and prolonged. The buzz in the room solicited a comment from the receptionist: “Hey, is there a party going on in there?” she yelled from a room close by. I remained detached for a short while as I tried to understand this phenomena objectively. Questions of psychological and spiritual nature were being raised but before long I, too, wanted to be a part of these human connections.
What to make of the waiting room transformation
“And God said, Let us make humanity in our image. God made man and then announced that it was not good for man to be alone, so he made a helper suited to the man and he made them male and female; both made in the image of God.” God, Himself, is community, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and apparently does not want us to be alone. We are wired to belong to each other. A spark of the Holy Spirit is what I believed happened in that waiting room. Isolation gave way to community and we were all better off for it. Encouraged, uplifted and hopeful is what we experienced and all of that without one of us having yet to see or hear from our doctors. God bless our doctors and what they do but at that moment we didn’t need them.
I looked up and there she was. I was waiting for my big breakfast egg scramble at an outdoor café, excited that I was feeling energetic and had an appetite. I had walked from my apartment to my favorite breakfast place to eat and work on my latest blog.
I was finishing my blog post on body image as I waited to be served my breakfast. As she sat at an empty table I could feel her eyes on me. My initial knee jerk response was not to make eye contact. I sensed she would approach me for something maybe just conversation but I had my own agenda and it didn’t include a long conversation with anyone. I couldn’t resist so I quickly looked up and then returned my focus back to the lap top faster than I could say egg scramble. Not sure but I thought we had actually met before in front of a laundry mat (a real talker – it takes one to know one) but I doubted she remembered me. She hangs out a lot on the street looking for approachable faces. Now, if this wasn’t bad enough on my part here’s where it gets really down and low. How I was behaving was a violation of one of my own recently acquired rules since becoming a city dweller. The rule: make sure eye contact is made and at least a few words are spoken to someone pan handling when responding to their request. Why? A few years ago while walking the streets of Jerusalem I was reminded out of nowhere that people who panhandler or those sitting against walls with blankets and change cups in tow were human beings, made in God’s image and deserving of dignity. Furthermore, they were once children who didn’t have the ambition to become homeless or a pan handler when they grew up. Like me and you and all 6 year olds they couldn’t conceive a future, regardless of how bad their childhood was, that excluded a dream of being a firefighter, teacher, nurse, shopkeeper, or professional basketball player. I doubt that any of these adults on the street said to themselves at 6-years old, “When I grow up I hope to wear tattered clothes, be alone and ask people for money as my daily routine.” So, from that time on I determined that I wouldn’t just place money in a bag or hand without making eye contact and saying something. It’s not as easy as you would think. Folks experiencing homelessness are accustomed to thinking of themselves as nobodies. They know we are uncomfortable with their circumstances and they are counting on us to relieve a little of our own guilt. Just drop it in or hand it out and keep moving; that’s all that is expected in this street drama of the haves and the have not’s.
Well, back to me – My breakfast came and I don’t know if was the size of it or the presentation of it; but staring at it I was immediately overwhelmed by my privilege and plenty. I then knew what I wanted to do and it wasn’t out of guilt. I wanted to invite her to join me and share my breakfast or order her own. I looked up. She was gone. I waited hoping she would return but she didn’t. I finally ate disappointed and a little dejected for a missed opportunity for both of us. Interesting that I felt disappointed and dejected; emotions that are likely standard fare for my would-be eating partner.
For parents, grandparents or anyone who have opportunity to influence children for goodness and kindness please read the following article: A Mom’s Hope for a Better World. Full of interesting statistics, good insights and practical suggestions, this mom does a great job of looking at the world and ‘bringing it home.’
‘Tis’ the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and have her nonsense respected.’ – Charles Lamb, 17th century poet and essayist
The last couple of infusions have required a total of 10 steroid pills to be taken during the 18 hours before the infusion. This only happens the day before the infusion and David is so thankful. Here’s why.
After the first episode of steroid glut David asked if he could give me a signal while I was in the clinic that would indicate that I needed to take my enthusiasm and gregariousness down a notch. The signal would be a wink. I was all for this. I certainly didn’t want to add embarrassment to him or myself due to a steroid over-exuberance. I agreed to the signal and thought that we had worked out something very appropriate.
Then came the day of my second infusion. My system was flooded with steroids. Yippee! I knew I was walking the knife edge between friendly and inappropriate but I was having way too much fun yucking it up with everybody…….and I mean everybody. Pity the stranger who just happened to look my way as I wanted them to become my new best friend. I knew if I looked at David’s face it would be winking away so I made a conscious decision to not look at him. What did he know?
Perhaps you are curious what my opening liners were to try to engage my new best friends?
“Hi there (lady sitting in waiting room), you have a really nice tan. I mean it; a really pretty tan. But are you supposed to? Aren’t we instructed to avoid the sun while on chemo? Tip: start with a complement but end with a friendly helpful admonition or criticism.
Our conversation ended up being shorter than I would have liked.
Next attempt to make new best friends.
“Hi, I remember you guys from two weeks ago. You are the friendly volunteers who carry around the goody cart.” (So far so good).
Then David said hi, too, but called one of them by the wrong name, or so I thought. Apparently steroids make one’s thoughts the rule of the land. I drew attention to the fact that David had called the woman by her wrong name. We argued about that in front of the volunteers. I tried to enlist the volunteers to take my side. They said they were instructed not to get in the middle of family disagreements.
The goodie cart rolled away sooner than I would have liked.
The infusion center at the cancer institute is huge with 36 infusion chairs or beds. I decided I would visit all 35 of my chemo brothers and sisters. I told David I was going to the bathroom and would take my IV pole with me and wouldn’t need his help getting there. I wandered the aisles to see if there was anybody I recognized from my previous visits. Bingo! I quickly engaged a friendly and talkative 80 year old something patient that I had met the previous week. Cruising and talking was great. Eventually David and my infusion nurse found me and semi-dragged me back to my cubicle.
Friendly 80-year-old and I could have talked longer. She was probably on steroids too.
Back home and coming down from steroid exuberance I began to think about the awkward side of friendliness amongst strangers. I searched the Net to read what not to say to people while seated next to them on a plane, clinic, or any other waiting area. Here are some ‘pick-up or hi-ya’ questions I hope to avoid asking at my next infusion:
“What do you do about rectal itch?”
“Does this look malignant to you?”
“Want to see something really weird?”
All steroid frolics aside:
A little bit of steroids are great. We all know of their anti-inflammability benefits. A one-time mega dose of steroids is one thing but I hope that those of you that must take steroids long-term and experience the adverse side-effects read this blog post for what it is.
There is good research touting the health benefits of connecting with strangers “appropriately” (benefits for you and benefits for them). We just need to be willing to take a risk. It is both spiritual (God created community), emotional/mental and organic. New human connections boost oxytocin and serotonin, which are biochemicals that build our immune system, improve mood and bond us with others.
So, I’ll see you out there making new best friends. And don’t forget to smile (see blog post entitled, ‘Duchennes Smiles Only, Please’).
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
― C.S. Lewis
This post will not be a cancer-related one unless cancer is used here metaphorically as we take time to consider the malignancy of some suffering in this world.
Have you ever heard a story that left you in awe or perhaps confused as to how to make sense of it? You knew that what you were hearing was swelling with profound meaning but because you had never experienced anything close to such a thing you felt inadequate to try to give words of meaning to what you heard; as if you might risk exposing a small-mindedness or an arrogant superfluous-ness.
I am about to share a story with you but it will be the last thing I will write for fear that I will be tempted to comment or explain. Some stories are stand alone and they work their meaning for each individual in unique emotional or spiritual ways. And that meaning can be transformative in some way. Offering a commentary can perhaps rob the story of its mystery of inspiration for a particular individual in a particular way.
I have been a subscriber to two different websites that track and follow the persecution of Christians in areas of government repression or radical Islamic insurgency. Release International (a UK-based organization) and World Monitor Watch (a ministry of Open Doors) inform of persecution of individuals or whole communities. Their information is based on sources that are close to the situation and are supported by a few secular media organizations. These stories of persecution have become so numerous, common place and seemingly intractable that unless you are looking for them they are not reaching your typical news source.
Recent news coverage of the fall of Mosul, Iraq to radical Islamist insurgency forces has made all the major news sources. What may or may not be explained in the telling of the takeover of the city by ISIS (the Islamist insurgents ) is the terror that 3000 Christians are experiencing as they desperately try to escape a possible death, abduction, or worse as they become a target of hostilities. We are aware that this is happening in Syria as thousands upon thousands of refugees flee to Jordan, Lebanon or any place that they can get to. And yes, these terrorized refugees are Muslim as well as Christian. Civil war is no respecter of religion, age or defenselessness. However, in both countries (Syria and now Iraq) thousand year old enclaves of Christians are being targeted for extinction, extortion or forced conversion. Entire communities, towns and cities of Christians who have lived peacefully for centuries as minorities in Syria and now in Iraq, have fled.
Typically the web sites I go to for updates don’t share personal human interest stories. They typically tell the facts and ask for prayer or some form of advocacy. I pay special attention, however, when a personal story is reported. The following is part of the full story of the Christian flight from Mosul as reported in World Monitor Watch and it left me so humbled and in awe of God’s work in the hearts of Christians in the midst of great adversity.
“A family with four small children, three to nine-years-old, living in the most dangerous area of Mosul – similar to the Green Zone in Baghdad – said after ISIS reached Mosul on June 6 they planned to leave early Tuesday morning around 7 am. But on Monday evening – while they ate dinner – two homes next to them were hit with RPGs and set on fire.
“We left the food and ran,” the wife said. “We didn’t even stop for our shoes, we fled in our sandals! We just made sure to take our I.D.s and important papers. The children were very scared.”
An older woman spoke of the long trip leaving Mosul: “We saw many people crying, and very angry. But we were singing praise songs in our car. We saw the sunrise, and we were saying, ‘O God, You are good. Thank you for this peace we have, we didn’t sleep all night, and still until now, but we are not angry. When we are rich in God, it is very special in these kinds of hard times.”
At one place where they were stopped waiting to pass, she saw some young men who were very angry. She went over and said to them, “Do you believe in God?” When they said yes, she asked, “Can I pray for you?” So they said ‘yes, please pray for us’. So she prayed with them there. “And I’m still praying for them now,” she added.
The church leader joined in: “Pray that we can return quickly to Mosul, because the future is unknown for us all. What kind of jobs we can get here is limited, and of course students missed their final exams, which are now postponed. How can we live, find work for an income? The church is helping us temporarily with living expenses, but we can’t stay here forever. If we cannot return, we will apply for residency here in Ankawa. We believe God will care for us, as Jesus said He does for the birds of the air!”
“God is good, all the time!” he added, with a big smile, gesturing to the children tumbling over each other and playing in the tiny hallway. “We pray things will get better, so we can go back to Mosul.”
Upon leaving, the church leader gave a final plea: “Pray for peace in Iraq. We have had enough of wars. Nowhere is safe here.”
Lord we join our fellow believers as we pray for peace for everyone and the end of terror. (Psalm 10:17-18) Amen
(Sorry dear readers, I did just leave a commentary. I couldn’t help it.)
The counselor in me has always had a vulnerable side when the professional hat is not worn.
I’ve been an interested and emphatic listener of others’ stories since my twenties when the Jesus story first made its impact (coincidentally or consequentially, I’m not sure). But I’ve not always been able to be a dispassionate empathetic listener. This vulnerability presents itself when I move from empathy to over-identification. The self-centered and self-protective side of my psyche hijacks the genuinely compassionate side and the fearfulness of “this sounds too close to home and could happen to me or a loved one” takes over and I am sorry I ever listened to that person’s story. I don’t know why but this does not happen when I am “clinical Dona” which is a good thing or I would have been admitted to a psych ward after my first year of practice.
I just spent three days in the hospital after getting an acute infection driven bya low white blood cell count due to chemotherapy. I spent 24 hours in the ICU and two and a half days on a regular floor. In both situations I was in better health than the patients around me and because of this I had conversations with worried and distressed family members that I would meet in the hall or waiting room. I heard stories of protracted and acute suffering and misery in a very short period of time. The empathetic listener had not turned off while I was hospitalized.
But there were times during my hospital stay that I wanted it to turn off; like when the descriptions of misery were too raw and graphic. At that point cancer would interrupt the counselor – butt her out with one quick unexpected slam – reminding her that there could be much more misery in store down the road of cancer treatment. So, after a while compassionate listening would give way to cowardly recoiling and shutdown. I would walk back to my room with more Dona-sadness than with Jack-sadness or Terri-sadness. Not pretty or admirable. Thankfully this overly anxious display of self-pity did not last long and did not keep me from praying for these folks and their distressed families.
My guess is that most of you readers are not going to be too hard on me. In most of us there is that nagging feeling and suppressed thought that suffering and loss are not that far from any of us regardless of the many precautions we take to stay them off. They blindside even the most cautious and genetically hearty of us.
In the introduction of his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Timothy Keller quotes Ernest Becker:
“I think that taking life seriously means something like this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation…… of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false.”
So how are we to live with peace, purpose, joy, love, and hope in light of this rumble of panic? How are we to recognize a caring, loving God who is for us when at any time the shoe can drop or has already dropped? I am a novice in this world of suffering but let me offer a couple of thoughts.
David my husband says that in times of crisis we are what we have been trained to be. My experience in watching others who have walked various kinds and degrees of suffering, ranging from tragic losses to debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses, is that getting through it required leaning on spiritual resources previously learned or acquired. I am not going to be so presumptuous as to imply that only those who rely on spiritual resources weather their tragedies well. I have read or heard inspiring stories of people who have weathered great hardship without apparently leaning on God.
But my experience in working in the US and the Middle East as well as meeting people from all over the world is that when push comes to shove it is spiritual resources that provide comfort and strength in times of critical helplessness; not perfectly or always heroically, but nonetheless “a leaning on” that brings comfort. I heard similar disclosures last week in the hospital’s halls and waiting rooms.
So, what are these spiritual resources that I hear about from the sufferer?
Complaining to a God who is both there and not too thin skinned to take it.
Drawing on scripture for comfort
Developing a Biblical awareness of the myriad of sufferings addressed in the biblical text with its various antidotes.
Receiving the practical and sacrificial helps and prayers of the church and friends that show the compassionate face of Christ, and finally,
Acknowledging that something supernatural is at work; ideally, a healing but certainly a feeling of the Holy Spirit’s presence. THEY ARE NOT ALONE.
I, too, have been relying on the above resources; not perfectly or even consistently . In a previous post called, Chipmunk Cheeks, I mentioned the futility of expecting God to give me the grace for my grim or fearful imaginings. He has not promised to do that. He has promised to be with me in the present and give grace for that present. If I lay hold of that truth once again I will be able to be fully present with those who tell me their woeful stories of pain and grief. Only then can I be numbered as one of the spiritual resources on which they can rely. “Oh God let it be true about me.”
I enjoy this popular personality inventory stuff. Bear with me. Later, I will lead you to some of the most inspiring thoughts. Not mine (be gone chemo-brain hubris!) but quotes from recently published, must-read book.
A ‘six’ personality type is a natural doubter and questioner. So, I did not have to have cancer to wonder why God allows suffering. I have questioned others within theological circles and read numerous publications in an attempt to make peace with suffering from a Christian faith perspective. Caring about suffering did not just happen when I found myself enduring some of it because of cancer treatment. I have questioned smarter people than me and I have, I admit, questioned God on this matter. Theodicy (defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of pain and suffering) has been topic of theological and practical struggle for me for the past 4 decades. But like Peter one of Christ’s followers, when asked whether he too would leave Jesus like many following Him did because of the hard teaching Jesus had just laid out, Peter’s (Dona’s) response was “where else would I go as you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
But occasionally the doubt and unease woven throughout my ‘six’ personality type rears its worried head like a watchful seal in the Juneau harbor – casting about looking for potential threats until soothed and reassured only then to slowly submerge beneath the surface. I trust in the goodness of God afresh.
The ‘Six’ personality type is also the loyalist with strong convictions. So, being a Six is not all bad. However it gets funky when the six’s spouse is a ‘seven’ personality type. ‘Sevens’ are the adventurers and enthusiasts. They naturally trust that everything is going to work out in the end. David’s personality though 90 percent perfect for me, has not generally made for long, long philosophical discussions. Manna from Heaven for me but more like prison food for David. Ironically, David will tell you that what caused him to leave the faith as a teenager – the problem of pain, evil, suffering and injustice in the world- would be what brought him back in his early 20’s. In David’s view, some worldviews logically account for suffering, but only one, Christianity, addresses the problem while offering hope. (See John 6:68, again). He’s a man with a vision who wants to do something, shake it out on the fly. In the classic words of President Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘The Simpsons Movie,’ he ‘wants to lead not read.’ I am not suggesting that David does not have his own private devotionals but long, long discussions with me has not been his forte. This is just the nature of a ‘seven’ on the enneagram which is incongruent with the ‘six” which naturally wrings her hands on many issues, philosophical or not.
But along came cancer carrying a book by Timothy Keller, Walking with God in the Midst of Pain and Suffering (Dutton 2013). Now, almost every morning David and I get our coffee and he reads out loud to me from this book and we discuss and discuss and it has become manna from Heaven for both of us. I’ll never have all my answers but I’m grateful to Keller and others who without pat answers or arrogance towards those of a different view, honestly and competently engage with the issues. I highly commend this most-readable book. I’ll conclude this post with a few Keller quotes:
“Part of the genius of the Bible as a resource for sufferers is its rich multidimensional approach. It recognizes a great diversity of forms, reasons for, and right responses to suffering.” (9)
“In the secular view, suffering is never seen as a meaningful part of life but only as an interruption.” (26)
“Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.” (30)
“While Christianity was able to agree with pagan writers that inordinate attachment to earthly goods can lead to unnecessary pain and grief, it also taught that the answer to this was not to love things less but to love God more than anything else. Only when our greatest love is God, a love that we cannot lose even in death, can we face all things with peace. Grief was not to be eliminated but seasoned and buoyed up with love and hope.” (44)
“But resurrection is not just consolation — it is restoration. We get it all back — the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life — but in new, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength.” (59)
“Suffering is actually at the heart of the Christian story.” (77)
“The best people often have terrible lives. Job is one example, and Jesus—the ultimate ‘Job,’ the only truly, fully innocent sufferer — is another.” (133)
“The only love that won’t disappoint you is one that can’t change, that can’t be lost, that is not based on the ups and downs of life or of how well you live. It is something that not even death can take away from you. God’s love is the only thing like that.” (304)