Saturday, October 27, 2012

Up in the air

One doesn't often have the change to blog from 30,000 feet, so how can I pass this up?

We are headed home from a brief vacation.  Sadly, not unlike a vacation taken about fourteen months ago, a potentially ugly storm is following us from Florida to Richmond.  I have the sick and ugly feeling we're going to be spending a few days without power if Sandy the Frankenstorm does what a lot of fairly intelligent people say it could do.  A week of lacking electricity, in mid-semester, with one more week of chemo/radiation to go...I can think of few things less pleasant.

Unfortunately I don't have a lot of difficulty coming up with fodder for unpleasant thoughts these days. Now that this first stage of treatment is winding down, the inevitable "what next" issues are crowding back into my consciousness.  After this week, it will be at least a month before another procedure to go in and look around can be done.  On the good side, that basically means I should get through the semester o.k. at least where health interruptions are concerned.  On the negative side, if that endoscopic ultrasound recommends surgery it could well mean I'm spending Christmas in the hospital.

Actually, my problem is that there are a lot more "on the negative side" possibilities than just that.  Treatment has gone incredibly smoothly so far, that much is true.  This doesn't change the fact that surgery is still a fairly likely outcome when all of this is done.  While I'm never super keen on having people cut me open, surgery itself is not the worst thing that could happen. However, because of where this cancer is located, there is still some possibility that surgery, even what doctors would call a "successful" surgery, could lead to outcomes for me that would be nothing short of cataclysmic.  Outcomes that could, for one minimal example, bring an end to this blog, because they would bring an end to the fool's errand that motivates the existence of this blog.  (No, I'm not talking about death.  No one with any kind of medical degree has yet used that language to describe my situation.)  A radically life-changing, career-inhibiting or -ending thing is still a possible result.  Needless to say, this is not a thing I can think about that easily.  I don't know that this is the likely outcome, but it is a possible outcome.

Other things come to mind, even provided I have successful, non-career-cataclysmic surgery, or even provided surgery isn't necessary after all.  (Either way, a second course of chemo/radiation is likely this winter/spring, for what it's worth.)  Obviously we're going to take a major financial hit from this.  The student insurance plan I've been living on since starting seminary has actually performed pretty decently so far (a plan that I will necessarily lose when/if I graduate or otherwise leave from here, of course), and a long-forgotten supplementary policy is going to help as well, but one doesn't have such an experience without taking a pretty severe hit, at least not most of us.  But that isn't even the most frightening part.

Cancer has a bad habit of not staying away.  It may be beaten back once, but people who have cancer once are generally pretty good candidates to have cancer again, and the particular cancer I have is no exception to that rule.  One might say that cancer is the mutha of all pre-existing conditions, if one were inclined to use such expressions.  I'm still pretty young, all things considered, and provided such treatment as I'm having is successful, I could have an awful lot of lifetime left to be largely uninsurable, depending on the outcome of this election (yes, you just read a political statement on my blog.  Screw it, this election has gotten a lot more personal for me since I got diagnosed with cancer.  You have a problem with it, shut up and go away, because I sure as heck will delete comments and ban you for no reason other than that I don't like them).  That's an awful heavy burden to lay on a wife that doesn't deserve it.  That's a long time to be playing roulette with my health and hoping the wrong number doesn't come up.

In the meantime, this has been a semester designed to remind me of all the reasons this errand is foolish.  Old Testament is kicking my butt, but it apparently kicks everybody's butt, so that doesn't concern me so highly.  Preaching & Worship is going reasonably well so far.  Intro to Pastoral Care ... ah, yes, my principal tormentor.  Not because anything has been particularly difficult or harsh about the class to this point but because it is the one part of this venture above all others that calls into play my greatest, most glaring flaws as a human being.  Being reminded of this on a biweekly basis hasn't been any fun, and I really don't have any idea how magically to transform those flaws into virtues or to cover over those weaknesses with strengths or any such thing.

Also part of my life right now is one of the larger future requirements to be met around here; internships.  Union requires at minimum one parish and one non-parish internship.  The parish internship is in a church, obviously, and the non-parish internship can be in anything from hospital chaplaincy to a social service organization to a retreat center to some other kind of denominational group.  Not knowing my future health vulnerabilities makes a hospital setting kind of risky, so I've been looking at other corners of the internship world for a summer internship.  The parish internship, which I hope to do over the course of next academic year, is a little more cut-and-dried, but finding a church where I can do an internship without doing some things I have theological problems with could still be a challenge.

So yeah, a lot to trouble me of late.  Probably appropriate to be blogging at 30,000 feet, with so much up in the air.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A hymn on food and eating

Back in May, I took a course on "Theology and the Politics of Food," one of the May term offerings at Union (May term, like January term, is a three-week course often given to electives of the professor's particular interest).  Towards the end of that course a hymn started to develop itself in my brain; I got it down in electronic form, tweaked it a time or two, and left it for a time.  I've come back a time or two, and I think I mostly changed some things back and forth without making too many changes.

Those who are part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) may have gotten a note in your bulletins this morning (or you may not; my church did not) about Food Week of Action and World Food Day. This extends through this week, with World Food Day on Tuesday.  You can follow the link to get some of the emphases this particular denomination is offering for this particular observance.

At any rate, it seemed like an o.k. time to put that hymn out there and see what anyone makes of it.  I don't necessarily claim it to be finished (English teachers will red-ink the last stanza, I'm sure), but I think it's at least coherent and hits a few of the themes that stayed with me from that class.  Some suggested hymn tunes are included at the end of the hymn.  Make of it what you will.

When we gather at the table
            Eating what is true and real,
Fellowship with all God’s people
            Makes the blessing for the meal.
Love for Christ and one another
            Makes the feast a sign and seal.
            (Makes the feast a sign and seal.)

Let us not forsake the workers
            Who put food upon our plates,
Those who toil at grueling labor
            Yet for whom no justice waits;
May we strive that they see mercy,
            Not be callous to their fates.

As we dine on all God’s bounty,
            Meats and grains and fruits God sows,
Never let us take for granted
            Everything that in Christ grows,
Creatures all of God’s own making
            And whose every breath God knows.

Teach us, Lord, to eat with conscience,
            Knowing that in Your good will
What we eat and who we eat with
            With Your blessing You will fill;
Nourish us to feed each other
            All with good and not for ill.

Possible tunes:
CWM RHONDDA (“God of grace and God of glory,” PH #420; the repeated final line as shown in the first stanza would come into play here)
TRINITY (“God is One, unique and holy,” PH #135; I particularly like the fit of this one)
REGENT SQUARE (PH #22 or 417)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Pulpit freedom" vs. World Communion

One of the fortunate things about being at Union is the presence of Syngman Rhee.  Those who know their mainline Protestant history of the mid- to late-twentieth century know he's kind of a big deal.  He spoke in chapel Wednesday of this week, and the sermon for a few wonderful moments broke into an impromptu group rendition of "Something Good" from The Sound of Music.  As the last notes echoed away, the good reverend had the presence to add, "Beautiful song, but bad theology," to waves of laughter.

Later, at community lunch after chapel, a blessing was offered by Michel Freychet, a French Protestant pastor and onetime exchange student at Union, who among other things has been active in formulating and promulgating a Christian response against torture in the Protestant churches of Europe.  In one of those wonderful things that happens when a non-native speaker of English grapples with the language and comes up with a far better phrase than we native speakers ever do, Freychet brought us to the moment of prayer with the imprecation to "do silence before God."

These are just a couple of the enlightening moments that have happened over the last couple of years due to the international connections that have been forged over the years at this seminary.  This doesn't even take into account the international students who studied here last year from Ghana and South Korea, and who are this year living as exchange students from South Korea, France, Hungary, Switzerland, and India.

Western churches have not "got it right" today any more than they have over many years of history, and churches in Ghana or South Korea or Guatemala or whatever country you may name have not "got it right" either.  Any church composed of human beings has not "got it right," when you get right down to it; we screw up.  We fail. We get things wrong, do or say the wrong thing, over and over.  The miracle is not that the church fails, the miracle is that the church has gotten as many things right as it has in its history, given the human propensity to go straight to the convenient and safe.

With that propensity for getting things wrong, any church is better off keeping its ears open in order to gain the benefit of the experiences, triumphs and failures all, of our brothers and sisters in Christ from points near and far.  Whether this is done by Union's (or any other seminary's) hosting of students and scholars from around the world or by a simple remembrance, on something like World Communion Sunday this past week, that the church is not confined to those buildings that look just like ours or memberships that look just like us.  Nor is it confined to those that believe just like us, as much as it may pain me sometimes.

Of course, not all churches observed World Communion Sunday this past week.  This thing called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" is still out there, apparently.  I blogged about it last year about this time, and my opinion hasn't changed much.  I am struck this year, however, by the supreme irony of calendaring that brings these two diametrically opposed events together.

For, among the many other things "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" betrays about a church, one of the less obvious but most deadly is the degree to which such a choice speaks to the closedness of that church.  Way beyond the tweaking of the IRS that provides the nominal motivation for the event, to follow after such a vicious definition of pastoral authority rejects any kind of notion that such a church has anything to learn from any other church.  We have the answers, and no one's going to stop us from foisting them upon you.  What else do you need to know? And yes, we're going to use your tax monies to do so.  Try and stop us.  

It isn't talked about so much as the usual frights confronting Protestantism today, but one of the scariest things about the modern religious landscape is the utter non-connectional mania of so many of today's evangelical megachurches.  They stand alone.  There's no sense of belonging to anything larger, or being accountable to anybody outside the walls of that church.  It gets frighteningly easy, I'd imagine, to bunker down inside the multi-billion-dollar compound and insist on a mental loop that we've got it right, everybody else is wrong, and we're somehow the ones being persecuted in the whole deal, not the people we use our money and votes to deprive of civil liberties or even basic needs.

Connectionalism has its pains.  Being part of a denomination is agonizing sometimes, as I was reminded by this summer's General Assembly of the PC(USA).  Still, being cut off from all outside accountability and living only in the endless echo chamber of one's own preferences and biases...I just can't see how that ends up being a healthy place.  You end up with things like "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" instead of World Communion Sunday.  And that's not a good thing.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Two weeks in

It is Friday afternoon, and I am beat like a used drum.  Just completed is the fourth week of the fall semester here at UPSem, and I'm feeling every day of it.

It's my own fault, of course.  I chose not to drop a class despite undergoing chemo and radiation.  On the other hand, the way things currently look, I should get through the semester before any surgery on that rectal cancer is actually done, so that's not a bad thing.  But the schedule I'm keeping means that I've got to go in for my radiation treatments at 7:30 a.m. five days a week (I get Saturdays and Sundays off).  I may not have mentioned this before, but the phrase "not a morning person" doesn't even come close to describing the depth of my aversion to early mornings.  My utterance of nonsensical syllables such as "blah," "urgh," and "bleargh" has multiplied sevenfold this week.

I'm tired, but with rare exceptions I'm not hurting or uncomfortable.  I did develop some back pain this week; I have no idea if it's related to radiation/chemo or not.  It's sporadic and only when I bend or sit certain ways, not constant.  Other discomforts or inconveniences, well...remember what type of cancer I have.  I'll spare you the details.  You're welcome.

I've actually just completed my second week of treatment, though this was the first week of early-morning appointments.  The treatment itself is almost comically brief.  From the time I get positioned on the table (after a comical kabuki of getting my shorts dropped while the poor attendant holds up a cloth to keep my privacy private) and get positioned to the time the last shot of rads or rems or whatever is pumped in from the direction of my right hip (following doses from behind, left hip, and front) lasts less than the duration of some of your more typical pop/rock songs played on your more typically generic radio stations, whatever is the preference of the technician working that day.  Last Friday, "Freeze Frame" by J. Geils Band corresponded exactly to that sequence.  Monday it was Prince's "Little Red Corvette."  I remind you that I'm supposed to be keeping still on the table all this time; how am I supposed to not move to "Little Red Corvette," pray tell?  The tunes in the middle of this week were rather anonymous to me, but today's corresponding song was the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit," which at least did not leave me trying to suppress an urge to dance, although it was all I could do to keep from belting out the chorus ("Put meeeeee on the highway... show meeee the sign ... and take IT! toooo the more...tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmmmme!"), which probably wouldn't have been a good thing.  After all, we only want that radiation to go where it's supposed to be going and not messing up other body parts because I was singing from way down low.

Once all this is over I'm out the door and headed for class.  By lunchtime or a little after, I'm feeling the fatigue, but I'm still convinced this is as much from the early rising as it is from any radiation/chemo side effect.  I'm really, REALLY not a morning person, I promise you.

This term's courses provoke four distinct and separate reactions.  Intro to Pastoral Care provokes dread. The business of pastoral care terrifies me.  I'm serious.  It touches all the places where I fear to tread and know myself to be devoid of competence.  Old Testament provokes a more typical academic type of dread.  Teaching Ministry of the Church?  Well, I get through it, with little high or low.  Preaching & Worship is my joy-maker for this fall.  I still sing in the seminary choir when time and treatment allows (which has been a real bliss-maker of late, with Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine this past week and Mendelssohn's "Verleih uns Frieden" upcoming), and work a little in the library resource center on campus.

Upcoming for a couple of weeks is another opportunity at participating in worship leadership at the church we attend here in Chesterfield County, much like this past summer.  Two of the above classes will require some extra activities through the church as well, in visitation and teaching.

The short of all this is that I have a routine, except on a very few occasions when I don't.  This is not normally blog-worthy, but all things considered having a routine right now is a wonderful thing.  Not everyone in my condition is so fortunate, to have a routine at all or to have one that so closely conforms to what was supposed to be their "normal" routine.  The next week promises to be absolutely harrowing, but thankfully not for health reasons--just a couple of exegeses (exegesii?  exegesises?) and a chapel service to help lead, a book to review, and the usual translations and readings and reflections and so forth and so on.  I will be overwhelmed, and when I remember what I could be overwhelmed by, I'll be happy.