The Man ‘With Nobody’ but Cancer

“At least you have somebody,” said the man leaving the cancer consultation room.

waitingWe were waiting our turn. This was one of several high anxiety medical appointments. We would be told the extent of the metastasis. Our daughter had offered to come with us and we gratefully accepted. To tap down the tension she was telling us the most recent knucklehead antic of one of our grandsons. We were laughing.

Shamefully, I didn’t notice the gentleman until those arresting words broke through the self-absorption and family comradery. I was speechless, literally. I said nothing to him. He walked by without receiving any personal acknowledgement. My husband and daughter felt it too; guilt for not offering some encouragement. David later told me that he thought of chasing the man down and saying something. But what was there to say?

“Sorry, man, that you don’t have a family or friend to be with you in a time like this?”

It was all so awkward, but my guilt was slightly assuaged by the justification that I was caught by surprise. But why surprised? Perhaps it was the surprise of a man’s spontaneous vulnerability to complete strangers. Or maybe it was the surprise of being shaken out of my consuming suffering to realize that I was part of a suffering humanity – no more or less special than anyone else; certainly not in the eyes of God.

Suffering is suffering for several reasons but one of its most devastating attributes is loneliness. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me;” the memorialized words of our Savior God who too experienced the human condition of loneliness as he hung on the cross suffering an agonized death of pain, shame and abandonment.

loneliness-quote-by-mother-teresaHardly shocking are the numerous studies showing loneliness as adverse to physical health. More than depression or anxiety, loneliness predicts a lower mortality rate. People live longer who don’t report chronic feelings of loneliness. Consider the Roseto Effect; a 50-year study of the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a community of Italian immigrants who lived sedentary lifestyles, were overweight, had high alcohol consumption, smoked stogies (whatever those are) and were exposed to toxic particles through their work at the quarries. Bottom line: they lived way longer than the average person in the US during the 1950’s. Being a descendent of Italian immigrants I was happily prepared to read that it was genetics that brought their good fortune of longevity. However, family members of the Roseto residents who lived in neighboring towns were not beneficiaries of the same great health. So, what was it? As it turned out no one in Roseto owned a TV and nightly group dinners were a common occurrence. Researchers, after controlling for about everything, concluded that these folks were dodging the bullets of loneliness’s bad health effects because they did use technology to entertain themselves in isolation. They just had each other and consequently lived longer for it.

Loneliness is awful on many levels. And just to be clear I’m talking about a distressful emotional condition; people that feel lonely, not people who live alone. Background: I was the only child of a career military father and a working mom. Loneliness was the constant background noise of my existence, but I compensated by developing people skills. Actually, I perfected very sophisticated kid skills. “Hey, you want to play with me at my house? My mom has candy in big dishes all through the house. (She really did. I didn’t care about candy, but I knew greedy, candy-starved children did.)

I told myself that I would never marry anyone in the military service, thus putting my kids through the never-establishing-roots-anywhere-lonely-existence that I had. But falling in love breaks a lot of promises made to one’s self.

I’m grateful for family and close friends. And I’m grateful for each of my adopted church families. Over the decades as an adult I have lived in ten communities spread over 11 time zones. In each I have enjoyed and loved the commitment each little band of Jesus followers had for me and me to them before I had to geographically move on.

“Family” is one of the most used metaphors in the New Testament for describing the church; a perk that has never been missed on this only child as she traipsed around the world. As David, my daughter and I sat waiting to learn the extent of my metastasis my adopted family sat in the wings, praying for us, bringing food, visiting, comforting, and laughing with us as appropriate.

I hope, I pray that the gentleman ‘with nobody’ but cancer will find his family. I pray that an adopted family, a church, will find him. It is our scared responsibility, as the church, to love our neighbor as we want to be loved. This challenges me, within my own little church, to make sure when someone is facing a health crisis to ask,

“Who is going with you to your appointment? How about me?”

“At least you will have somebody.”

“Perfect Weddings” and Jesus

dog eats wedding cakeGoogle “Perfect weddings” and you will get about 100 million hits in all manner of categories: perfect wedding ideas, planners, colors, pictures, gowns, flower arrangements, cakes, settings etc…

Who doesn’t want to think of their wedding as being perfect?  Who goes around saying, “I hope my wedding is a bust or I hope it turns out to be a disaster or I hope I am disappointed, or, worst yet, I hope I get really embarrassed or shamed at my wedding?”  Most of us can tolerate the image of a blunder or funny mishap but not humiliation. Nope, no sane person would wish that for themselves.

Sure, we get carried away with obsessing over goofy details and expectations that should have stayed in childhood fairy tale books. And sure, stressors can mount to the point of bridezilla outbreaks or stupid groom stupors.  But, all in all, there is nothing wrong in longing for “the perfect wedding.”  The wedding is a momentous occasion of promise and commitment rivaled by no other kind of relationship ceremony. Within that ceremonial show of pomp and circumstance there is a public announcement that speaks to a new life anchored in the mystery of “two becoming one.”  And we, the spectators, are judging.  Yes, we are judging, not in a petty superficial way (hope not).  We are asking ourselves, “What is the basis for this wedding?”  If the couple are believers then the answer is straight forward.  The couple is sanctifying their union before God and that comes with promises that include martial faithfulness, and a commitment to support each other for better and for worse and for richer and for poorer.  If there are to be children then they will be raised in the context of faith and safety. This is a big order and is not always fulfilled.  Nonetheless, these are the time-honored promises and we, the guests, are celebrating the couple’s willingness to undertake such a risky and hard commitment.  For the marriage veterans who know the rocky bumps ahead we rightly view the seriousness of this event.  The couple is undertaking an amazingly mature path; one of life’s greatest risk-reward ventures.  We ask ourselves, “Does this couple have what it takes?”  The wedding couple believe they do and so we get behind them and we whoop it up with them as the love and wine flows at the reception.

But for those who are not “religious” or perhaps have lived together for years; why the longing for the “perfect wedding”? I would suspect for basically the same reasons – thinking themselves mature enough to take on this commitment of faithfulness, love and partnership in all matters of life together. Placing their commitment on the time/space continuum of human history. On such and such date at such and such a place a public and legal commitment of fidelity and love will be made and thus the reason for celebration. And we their guests are hoping that the marriage proves their hope correct in spite of grim statistics.  We humans are forever hopeful and love the chance for love.  And so we celebrate.

Weddings for millennium have been the grand community or village event; better than the celebrations surrounding royalty or political governing powers. Why? Because weddings are celebrations among peers.  There is reciprocity.  Weddings are even a transaction, so to speak, between the wedding party and the attendees.  We, the guests, are expected to show up, dress appropriately, celebrate enthusiastically and give gifts.  And our expectations as guests are rather primal. We want something to see, eat and drink.  And that something should not be the banal everyday fare. We want to be honored witnesses. Food and drinks is how it is done.  A wedding is everyone’s party pronouncing family and community legacy and bonds.  Weddings tell us that we are not alone – we belong to the gathering.

The meaning of food and drinks:

The bride may trip and fall into a pool (watch this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIbegxOwwpI  ), a groom may badly sing his wedding vows, or the wild flowers picked for the reception begin to release hidden unwanted crawly things.  But if the food and drink run out before every guest is served then you have it – a wedding humiliation! A funny story can be made out of the bride falling into the pool – even the bride has a great story to tell (and a viral video) as part of her wedding legacy but running out of food and drink does not bring the chuckles at family reunions when stories are being told and retold to children and grandchildren.  We would rather forget this poor planning. Giving out of food and drink at a wedding is a major embarrassment, and in some cultures a shame to the wedding party and a great offense to the guests.

All this wedding talk leads me to one of my favorite Jesus stories.  Early in John’s gospel Jesus performs his first miracle, or sign as John calls it.  Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding in Cana.  His mother tells him that the wine has run out and Jesus turns water into wine; in fact, really good wine.  This story is rich with gospel imagery and metaphor that foreshadows Christ’s grand cosmic performance-his death and resurrection. Read a few bible commentators to understand how deep this event truly is.  So, don’t make the mistake of reducing this wedding story to one that endorses getting sloshed at parties.  Nor should it be over-spiritualized to the point that it has no real connection to a real wedding and real wedding-goers.  Jesus responds to a potential emotional crisis. He rescues the bridegroom from one of life’s most common and distressing emotions: shame. Think about it. Jesus’ first sign could have been something so spectacular that everyone at the wedding is left slack-jawed; making him the center of attention.  Jesus, albeit reluctantly at first, due to timing factors of revealing His glory and purpose; does not want to stand around and see the bridegroom and his family put to shame. He changes mega stone water jars into a choice merlot and does so with no one knowing but the servants, who follow his instructions, his mother and his disciples.  And that is that. Later Jesus reveals power by healing the sick, facing off demons and controlling natural forces thus becoming the center of attention wherever he goes; but in this first miracle we have an understated Jesus understanding the pitfalls of a shame-based culture. Unwilling for shame to hijack this joyous occasion Jesus insures a “perfect wedding”.