Monday, March 25, 2013

Not quite Lent

Somewhere over north or maybe central Florida, we're on our way to visit my wife's folks.  It's rather shameful that we haven't done this much more often, at least since moving away from Florida.  One time won't make up for it, but we're off anyway.

It's a makeup trip, covering for the one I was no way able to make after surgery.  In this case the rescheduling also has the benefit of allowing me to take in a couple of spring training games with my father-in-law.  This will make the trip a raging success no matter what.

The oddity is, of course, that the trip more or less obliterates Holy Week, or a liturgically official observance of it, for us.  We could seek out a Maundy Thursday service, but Good Friday will be spent flying back to Richmond.

In a way this is only fitting, as the onset of chemotherapy more or less obliterated Lent, or what I had thought Lent was going to look like.  I had a balanced plan, so to speak; one thing to give up, one task to take on.  Once chemo kicked in, though, giving up any kind of food gave way to "eat whatever your body tolerates and don't ask questions."  As to the other, frankly, I wasn't in the mood to take up the hymn-writing project I had planned.  I got petulant and junked that plan.  Not my finest hour.  I'm still not all that ready to be terribly penitent about it, though.

Still, I have to admit I've felt the absence of these elementary rituals of the liturgical season.  I won't say it's been ruined or anything quite so melodramatic, but it hasn't been "right" in some way.  There's a noticeable hole.

Rituals matter.  If they didn't exist we would have to invent them.  (And those who claim to scorn or debunk ritual are typically the most ritual-bound people I know even if they don't admit it, so don't go there.)  They mark things, remind us of what means something, and provide a kind of identity for those who observe them.  They provide gathering points in lives that might otherwise remain adrift from one another.

So yes, I've missed Lent.  And I'll miss Holy Week.  I suppose I will be engaged in a kind of healing ritual, though (as cheesy as it sounds baseball games really do function that way for me, when all goes right).  And being with family is not a bad thing, in the right doses (imagine a grinning emoticon here).

In short, no ponderous Lenten reflections here.  I've gotten dislocated, one might say, and yet I still feel its pull.  But there is a promise that Easter is almost ready to explode upon us.  Hope lives anyway.  I can be thankful for that.  The promise of Easter, fortunately, does not rely upon my ability to prepare for it.  That doesn't mean I'm happy about having missed out on it this year.

Monday, March 18, 2013

What I can handle

Chemo week two is in progress.  The "pump" (I don't hear it pumping, but apparently it is) is delivering the last of my chemo cocktail between now and some time Wednesday, and it remains attached to me until then.  It's a bit of a bundle, not large but awkward, and keeps me from sleeping on my right side if nothing else.
It can be a long day in the transfusion chair.  Fortunately, my professors are kind enough to supply me with plenty to do while in that chair.  In my approximately four-and-a-half hour stint there today I read for Old Testament and Sacraments and completed a morning prayer service to lead the week after spring break (and worked Ray Bradbury into it).  Not bad, but not a form of study inducement I recommend.
Today was different from two weeks ago; at least one patient in the transfusion room was not old enough to be my parent.  For the most part they either have company with them, are glued to the TV (the two are not mutually exclusive), or are asleep or trying to sleep.  At least I add variety to the room, I guess.
The thing about being treated for cancer in one area -- the rectum, in my case -- is that the area in question is not, by a long shot, going to be the only one affected by the course of treatment.  My bladder had nothing to do with this and is yet getting freaked out by the treatment, if nothing else than by getting a continuous feed of liquid for four and a half hours every other Monday.  It isn't the only part in that region, either.  It gets a little difficult to keep up with so many body parts in rebellion.
Eating is also becoming an interestingly unpredictable experience.  I truthfully have no idea at this point what will settle well with me and what will create problems.  Fruits have been cooperative so far, but vegetables far more unpredictable.  A nice salad might sound good right now, but only if I can camp out near the bathroom for the following 24-36 hours.  Beans and peas seem to be o.k., but corn is a raging disaster.  Meats seem more or less cooperative, breads problematic at times.  It's an adventure, and not always one I'm ready to handle.
More than once of late I've seen riffing on the horrid platitude that people exchange, in a well-meaning but disastrous way, with those who have been beset by some hardship or tragedy:

"God won't give you more than you can handle."

One such riff is humorous: a Facebook card that adds the sentence "Apparently God thinks I'm a badass."  The other approach, in more than one source, is a sound and well-needed theological debunking and dismantling of the saying itself.
Let's be clear: I am NOT "handling" this, certainly not by myself.  My wife needs to be elevated to sainthood, I don't give a tinker's damn if she isn't Catholic.  Not only is she taking on even more of the everyday things, she's also handling the business side of the cancer, which should be an automatic in for sainthood.  You believe in supporting the poor, Pope Francis?  Get on it.  By the time this is over we will qualify for sure.
Professors have gone out of their way to keep from drowning me and have been far above accommodating.  Fellow students have quietly stepped in to keep me from wiping out of classes when I've had to miss more than once.  My little on-campus job is still there.  The ministry development office has adjusted to my need to change my plans for internship this summer and next year.  Folks at the church(es) we've attended have constantly been there for support.
Hell, no, I'm not "handling" this.  Not even remotely.
It might seem cruel to say that God deliberately does give us more than we can handle (though not nearly as cruel as saying God creates some specifically for eternal torment, and Calvin got away with that), but maybe it's so.  Of course, it isn't a random bit of torture; we are reminded precisely that we cannot handle things by ourselves.  We aren't lone rangers, and those who insist on riding that way are completely divorced from what God wants us to do and how God means for us to live.
We live dependently on our sisters and brothers in Christ.
We do not handle it by ourselves.  We do not "in our own strength confide" to borrow from Luther's hymn.  We do not beat cancer by ourselves, we do not beat unemployment by ourselves, we do not beat prejudice by ourselves, we don't beat anything by ourselves.
And when we aren't the ones being beset by tragedy or hardship, we're supporting and carrying and bailing out our sisters and brothers who are.
And I have just typed about the most anti-American bit of scribble I've done yet in this blog.  We are the land of "rugged individualism" and all that.  This probably explains why we have done such garbage in the name of Christ.
I've railed against establishment Christianity before.  I'll spare you.  But American Christianity had more or less the culture for much of America's history and absolutely squandered it on comfort and power and moralizing.  We don't know how to live dependently on one another.  We don't know how to trust one another that much.  We have no concept of how those Christ-followers lived in Acts 2, and we'd probably be horrified if we did.
I have not "handled" this illness and treatment, not at all.  I've been carried through it.  I've been bailed out.
And that's what living in the body of Christ means.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Putting the "fool" in "fool's errand"

There are times when I, even amidst all the cancer stuff, look ahead and get absolutely giddy with anticipation of whatever pastoral vocation may lie ahead.  I'm never so naive as to think such a vocation won't have its perils and pitfalls, but the idea of being in the church, living out a ministry that begins with presence and patience and listening and reflecting and waiting for that little twinge that says "now, the Lord is doing that new thing -- watch!  pay attention!" gets a little thrilling, particularly for someone whose existence has been a bit peripatetic up to now.

Then there are the times that make me shake my head and say "You're kidding, right?  You?  What makes you think you're ever going to get there?"

Seldom is there any one thing that makes me go there.  And it's not so much that that's a sad or frustrated place, as much as it is a place that makes me take a deep breath (as every person, nay even ever sentient being, even those out there in the universe whose physiology doesn't even require breathing, must do on occasion) and see myself as the most oddly-shaped peg (nothing nearly so simple as "square," not me) possible in a world of varying sizes of round holes.

For example: for our section this past Thursday in my Sacraments independent study, the assignment was to prepare and deliver a prayer of Thanksgiving Over the Water, part of the baptismal liturgy.  It could have been one of the prayers from the Book of Common Worship, it could have been from some other liturgical source, from another denomination or none at all; it could have been an original prayer (and I had written one the previous week, so that was already available).  Monday during my chemo transfusion I took to the web, to make one last sweep, so to speak, and see if anything promising turned up before I went back to one of the above.  I did find a compelling responsorial prayer from an Australian prayer book, which looked like a strong possibility to use.

Then, to my surprise, turned up a version of such a prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, set for intonation.  Of course I had to go for it.  The issue was settled before I even knew what I was doing.

In a world where the church is constantly under pressure to adapt and change and morph boldly into the future, where a whole Presbyterian organization is devoted to figuring out what "NEXT Church" looks like (they just had a big meeting this past week), where the past is something to be treated as if it carried bubonic plague, I'm off in my little corner chanting prayers like an addict.  Who am I kidding?  They don't hold meetings devoted to "PAST Church," and I'm off chanting almost by reflex.  I'm not that far from fifty.  My middle year of seminary is getting whacked around by cancer treatment.  My car CD player is far more likely to be occupied by Coltrane or Mendelssohn than by whoever this Mumford & Sons outfit is.  I am not a polished or highly refined physical presence by anybody's standards.  I'm not what anyone would call a particularly inspiring dynamic or outgoing leader type (my style, such as it is, is rather more quiet with much question-asking).  I'm not particularly well-connected.  I don't have any grand visions for the future.  Who am I kidding?

And yet the fool's errand continues.  There is no turning back, not because I haven't thought very hard about it at times, but because the thing, whatever it is, is still out there.  I'm less certain what "the thing" is anymore; I still imagine some form of pastoral calling, but my life has been so whacked around of late that I have to be open to different avenues by which such a vocation may be lived out.  Whatever that might be, I'm still on the path towards it, wherever that is.

I'm still here because every now and then my mind explodes in class, or in chapel, or just sitting and reading or talking -- not a destructive, waste-laying explosion, more like the Big Bang, with pockets of life springing out where there was only chaos and void before, and I know that another piece of the puzzle, another building block, has fallen into place.

I'm still here because I cannot get free of that sense of vocation, acting much like a particularly strong undertow, pulling me in directions I would not have imagined before, drowning me in a hope and a passion from which I have no desire to be rescued.

I'm still here because I can't imagine being anywhere else.  Even if I don't see anyplace for the bizarrely-shaped peg that I am to fit into.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Prisoner of the good face

I've had a few responses to the last post I put up here, all from friends of various amounts of history.  Some by Facebook comment or message, and even some by regular old email, a technology I'm beginning to forget how to use (sadly, no comments directly on the blog, alas).  All contained varying degrees of support or encouragement as well as making some kind of response to the content of the post.

One of those responses, from a longtime friend and confidant, put out the idea that (at least in his case?) what might be called "inspirational" about my current circumstance and response to it is my honesty.  Apparently some of the posts along the way have come off as more direct and unfiltered than one is accustomed to seeing.  I suppose there might be some truth in that.  Even if I'm not dying from this cancer, I guess somehow I've come to the point of being unwilling to be anything less than direct about this illness and how it is affecting me, mentally and emotionally as much as physically.  That may put some people off, but it may draw more people, if the page view stats this system provides are any indication.

In its own way, that's a little sad.  Or perhaps, it points to something the church needs to think about.

I've been fortunate that, with one or two exceptions, no one has really found anything unacceptable or unforgivable in any of my rants to this point.  I've been surrounded by a community that has been unbelievably supportive and caring, both at the seminary and in the church we attend.  I know of many churches that offer services of healing and wholeness, specifically designed for the kind of persons going through illnesses like mine and much worse.  Churches visit, they provide meals or rides or all sorts of other support.  Churches do a lot for people in suffering, I'm not so naive as to deny that.

I wonder, though, if there is something we sometimes overlook.

Church can, at times, be the hardest place to be for a person going through difficult times, physically or otherwise.  It can be a place where one feels compelled to put a good face on things.  Your soul may be tearing you apart, you might only barely be able to look another in the eye, but it's church, and you can't go around disrupting things, so you put on the good face.  Then you do it again the next time you're at church, or if you run into some of your fellow church folk at the supermarket or elsewhere.  More good face. (Then there are some who can't stop themselves putting on the good face even when they are among dear friends and fellow sufferers begging them to be real and open up.  But that's another issue.)

Is there a space where the suffering can suffer out loud?  Can we be so closely knit a body of Christ that we can go ahead and feel that screaming pain from our brother or sister without being scandalized or finding that person's pain and anguish somehow scandalous or improper?

I've been told that for Americans, the default, almost mindless answer to the usual greeting question "how are you doing?" is an almost reflexive "fine" or something similiar, whereas if you ask that of a British chap he'll immediately tell you not only that things are lousy, but exactly why -- awful pain in that left knee, cold that won't go away, rotten week at work, and so forth.  An American might be taken aback in the face of such directness.

I guess that my own situation is making me think more about what kind of space we allow for suffering and the anger and sadness that comes with it.  Are we too ready to imprison the sufferer, or ourselves for that matter, in the good face?  I can't say that I really have anything specific to propose here.  I have said many times before in this blog that I don't have answers and I don't have anything original to say.  I can only wonder if among all the things the church as a body of Christ-followers for those in suffering or pain or sickness or despair, if there's some way to create space for the anger and sadness and raging that goes on inside the soul of the sufferer, instead of too easily pointing to some supposed saintly model of suffering in which the patient shows nothing more than a beatific smile and heavenward glance, like something out of a martyr myth.  (For one thing, being martyred for your faith is nothing like having cancer or having your spouse killed by a drunk driver or any number of other sufferings.)

I don't deny it's hard.  It terrifies me every time I let loose with one of these, hearing voices from way back in some (imagined?) past castigating me for being so weak or faithless.  Or some imaginary "coach" telling me to "suck it up" and "quit being a sissy" (or worse) (and I never really was an athlete, so I have no idea where that comes from).

But I've learned enough to know that the longer that anger stays imprisoned behind the good face, the longer it will corrode me from within.  Even now, with a little better health for the moment and a couple of days of release, I'm in at least a decent place for now as chemotherapy starts tomorrow.  I'm not looking to run off and do Gene Kelly's Singing in the Rain routine by any means, but I'm in a place where the anger has run its course.  We'll see how things go tomorrow, mind you.

And I guess I've been challenged to try to be more perceptive and more open to others who are in the depths of suffering or anger or sadness or despair.  I can't say I've got a great track record there myself.

Darn it, this growing up business is difficult.