From My Reading

Through compassion it is possible to recognize that the craving for love that people feel resides also in our own hearts, that the cruelty that the world knows all too well is also rooted in our own impulses. Through compassion we also sense our hope for forgiveness in our friends’ eyes and our hatred in their bitter mouths. When they kill, we know that we could have done it; when they give life, we know that we can do the same. For a compassionate man nothing human is alien; no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying”  (Henry Nouwen).

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“[F]or Jesus, peace seems to have meant not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love” (Frederick Buechner).

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Life can survive in the constant shadow of illness, and even rise to moments of rampant joy, but the shadow remains, and one has to make space for it” (Diane Ackerman).

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“When you plant a seed of love, it is you that blossoms ” (Ma Jaya Sati).

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“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned” (Bryan Stephenson in  Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Justice).

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We can create transformative, resilient realities by becoming transformed, resilient people” (Krista Tippett).        

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“Envy is the  consuming desire to have everybody else be as unsuccessful as you are” (Frederick Buechner).

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“Detachment is often understood as letting loose of what is attractive. But it sometimes also requires letting go of what is repulsive. You can indeed become attached to dark forces such as resentment and hatred. As long as you seek retaliation, you cling to your own past. Sometimes it seems as though you might lose yourself along with your revenge and hate—so you stand there with balled-up fists, closed to the other who wants to heal you. . . .” (Henri Nouwen). 

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Who Am I When My Body Fails Me? – Part 12: Dying Before You Die

Who am I when my body fails me?”  This is a question we must face when injury or illness takes its toll  on our lives. How do we respond to physical, mental, emotional stresses? How do we view God when we are we are in pain? How do we cope with the losses we experience?  A series of posts which deals with these questions was first published in this blog in 2016.  It may be time for some of us to ask this question again – or for the first time.

Individual posts in the series have been revised and have been posted on Tuesdays and Saurdays for several weeks. Suggestions for appropriate Scripture passages, prayer, quotes and questions for reflection have been added as have thoughts from  my experiences of caring for my dying husband in 2020. THIS IS THE LAST POST IN THIS SERIES.  A friend has commented:  “Who knew that this writing project/ update would segue into your grieving work.” Who knew indeed!

DYING  BEFORE YOU DIE

“It takes enormous courage to live the Christian gospel, which is so quintessentially a path of “dying before you die.” It takes tremendous courage to move forward in hope, knowing ‘whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s.’ This courage is beyond the capacity of the ego, and a Christianity lived only ego-deep will ultimately betray itself” (Cynthia Bourgeault in Mystical Hope).

Having lived with a variety of life-shortening health issues (diabetes, blood clots, multiple myeloma – an incurable blood cancer)  for the past several years, I have wrestled with the question of how to face life when death looms large.  Actually, this is a question we all should be wrestling with as soon as we are mentally capable of understanding that death ends every life. How do we live life knowing it will end life through, whether through expected or unexpected events?

Cynthia Bourgeault has the answer that all Christ-followers need to embrace (see quote above).  She reminds us that Jesus told us that we must be on a path of “dying before we die.” What does that mean?  It means that God the Father is in control of our world. When we live as though we are in control, we deny  a basic reality: God is the King and we were created to live in God’s kingdom.  When we try to wrest the power from God, we live a sub-human life and miss the glory Father created for us to share in. Every moment we live, we either choose to surrender that moment to God (dying before we die) or choose to go our own way, denying life’s other basic reality: ultimately we will die whether we are ready or not.

Choosing to “die before we die” means letting go. We learn to give up control – first of situations and events, then of people, then of our own life, and finally of our death. Recognizing that we have no control over death is the hardest to accept, especially for those of us in the West. Western thinking teaches us that we need to live as long as possible no matter what it takes. Eastern thinking has more respect for the event of death and for how to deal with its inevitability.

My experience is that the more we deny, the less valdying 2ue whatever life we have left has. On the other hand, when we are “dying to death” we are also living until we die. Every sunrise is more beautiful than the previous day’s. Every baby’s smile and child’s giggle is more fun than the last. Every interaction with family is vital. Every time spent with friends is precious because time is not wasted on the trivial but on the meaningful. Every task we choose to accept is viewed through the lens of its value to the Kingdom. We need to help each other understand that “dying to death” is a beautiful way to join with all creation and bow gracefully to the concept that all life ends and new life begins.

Richard Rohr tells us that “mature spirituality creates willing people instead of willful people” (Daily Meditation, August 31). As spiritually mature people “we slowly unfold in response to love and grace and freedom, rather than in mere reaction to the illusions of others. Without this insight, religion largely creates rigid, unhappy, and judgmental people.”  I might add that mature spirituality seems to rise from “dying before we die.” As we give up the peripherals of our lives along with the narcissistic view that we are in control of everything, we are able to recognize and nurture “love and grace and freedom.”

REFLECTION

MULLING IT OVER: What does it mean to you to live die before we die?  What do you need to loosen your control over so that you ocoan accept God’s love and grace and nurture it in others?  What are the “peripherals in your life” that are keeping you from seeing the preciousness of each day in the face of death?

SCRIPTURE: 1 Corinthians 15:51 (MSG):  

PRAYER: Lord God, help me die to death and live until I die. I want to appreciate each day, yet I still long for the time when “Death will be swallowed by triumphant Life.  Help me see beauty even in weakness an loss. Help me to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things with grace and peace. Amen

THOUGHT:  “There is nothing, naturally speaking, that makes us lose heart quicker than decay – the decay of bodily beauty of natural life, of friendship, of associations, all these things make a [person] lose heart; but Paul says when we are trusting in Jesus, these things do not find us discourage, light comes through them” (Oswald Chambers in Hope: A Holy Promise). 

NOTE FROM 2020:  Journeying with my husband for the last several months has given me a picture of what “dying to death” means. As the weeks went by, I could see him gracefully giving up one thing after another: eating his favorite foods, traveling outside the house, staying awake during his TV shows – and finally, getting out of bed. Still he maintained his delight in each phone call and each visit, and in each of our conversations. And then one day, after fighting to get the nebulizer mask off his face, he turned on his side, breathed shallowly, and died.

I remembered hearing that when Dallas Willard died, he whispered “Thank You” as he moved from the Kingdom on Earth to the Eternal Kingdom. I expect that Fred (who said “thank you” for everything I did for him) did the same when he was released from pain and gasping from breath into that same Kingdom.

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Who Am I When My Body Fails Me? – Part 11: Widening Circles

Who am I when my body fails me?”  This is a question we must face when injury or illness takes its toll  on our lives. How do we respond to physical, mental, emotional stresses? How do we view God when we are weak or in pain? How do we cope with the losses we experience?  A series of posts which deals with these questions was first published in 2016.  It may be time for some of us to ask this question again – or for the first time. Individual posts in the series have been revised and will be re-posted on Tuesdays and Saurdays for several weeks. Suggestions for appropriate Scripture passages, prayer,  quotes and questions for reflection have been added.

Sometimes our bodies fail us temporarily.  We share the family’s cold or flu or COVID-19. We suffer with tennis elbow or blisters or sprains. We break bones or have ulcers or disintegrating discs or cataracts.  Sooner or later our internal organs don’t function as well as they used to. Yet all these issues can usually improve or heal.

However, the time comes when we recognize that our bodies are progressively over-stressed and weakening. If we are at all introspective and honest with ourselves, we understand that life as we have known it is coming to an end. It seems to me that this passage is similar to the huge transition of moving into the teen-age years or middle age, but we are likely to be better prepared for it – or at least we can be. We can see new opportunities even as our stamina decreases, our balance is impaired, or our hearing fades.

It seems to me that Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the 20th century’s premier poets in the German language, has put his finger on this journey in the first verse of his poem Widening Circles:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I believe that a “successful” life is one of ever-widening circles. These circles bring new friends, new ideas, new interests, new schedules, even new behaviors. Eventually, however, we will realize that we will “not complete this last one.” If these circles include ever-widening circles of intimacy with God, we can more easily “give [ourselves]” to our last circle.

REFLECTION

MULLING IT OVER:  Are your “circles” widening or contracting? Are you growing away from God or closer to God? Are you reaching out to friends and responding when they reach out to you or are you isolating?  Choose a way to craft an ever-widening circle in your life today.

SCRIPTURE:  Colossians 3:12-17

PRAYER:  Lord God, help me reach out to others so we can share our lives together.  Make me open to new circles of friendship and influence, help me find encouragement,  contentment, and serenity and to share those qualities with others. Amen.

2020 Update:  I can attest to the value of widening circles as I begin my life as a widow (that’s the first time I have said or written that word).  Friends and family from everywhere I have lived have offered emotional support, prayer, friendship and even financial support. 

I will never forget October 5, the day Fred died. About ten minutes after I knew that he was really gone, I called the Hospice nurse; she was several miles away.  Then I called a member of my spiritual formation group.  She said, “You can’t be alone. I’m chauffering my grandsons to a sporting event miles away.  I’ll call Mary Ann.”  In less than 20 minutes while the hospice nurse was still preparing Fred, Mary Anne came and acted as my better self, ushering in the ambulance crew, answering questions, crying with me for about 3 hours until my son came and took over.  The friend who arranged for Mary Ann to support me also called all the other members of our group.  I heard from everyone of them within a couple of hours. Sorrow shared is a gift God gives; are we willing to accept it?

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Who Am I When My Body Fails Me? – Part 10: Trading Coins

“Who am I when my body fails me?”  This is a question we must face when injury or illness takes its toll  on our lives. How do we respond to physical, mental, emotional stresses? How do we view God when we are weak or in pain? How do we cope with the losses we experience?  A series of posts which deals with these questions was first published in 2016.  It may be time for some of us to ask this question again – or for the first time. Individual posts in the series have been revised and will be re-posted on Tuesdays and Saurdays for several weeks. Suggestions for appropriate Scripture passages, prayer,  quotes andd questions for reflection have been added.

TRADING COINS

“I think of each day as a gold coin that you are required to trade for something. You’ll never get that coin back, so whatever you trade it for had better be worth it. You also don’t know how many coins you have left to trade. . . .”

This statement by Dr. Raymond Barfield is from an interview with Janice Lynch Schuster in the magazine The Sun. Dr. Barfield is a pediatric oncologist and an outspoken critic of the way doctors are trained in medical school to focus on “the moving parts” (the treatment of organs and the body’s systems) but not on understanding patients and treating them with compassion. I was fascinated with Barfield’s comparison between what he learned as a medical student and how he now treats his young patients.

“Obviously we want doctors to understand biology. That’s a given.  But we want more than that.  We need more if a doctor is going to provide wise guidance regarding difficult decisions. When a patient is at a true fork in the road, biology alone will not help with which way to go. A doctor’s imagination needs to encompass more than the molecules going around in the body. We need to ask, Who is this person? What do they care about? What are they afraid of? What do they hope for? Do they have a goal that might make a difference in how I advise them at this crossroads? Too often doctors’ imaginations don’t reach far enough because of the way doctors are educated” (From an interview with Dr. Raymond Barfield in The Sun, January, 2016 issue).

I’m sending a copy of the interview in The Sun to my primary care doctor as a thank you. I know from experience that he operates from both his medical knowledge and his heart of compassion and love for his patients. And I am learning that my cancer doctor has the same philosophy. Yesterday I was interviewed by the social worker at his office. Among many other things, she asked me to share my understanding of my cancer and my treatment options. She asked me to share what I value in my life the most now that I have this diagnosis. She wondered what my biggest concern about the road ahead might be. She asked many questions about end of life treatment options. It was a blessing to have her facilitate this discussion in the presence and with the help of my son, who is also my health advocate. This office also is surely dedicated to the compassionate treatment of the whole person.

The metaphor about “trading coins” that begins this blog is inspired by Dr. Barfield’s belief that each person’s life is of value and each day counts. We all need to consider how each day is spent. While we can’t control the numbCoins pouringer that has been allotted, both doctor and patient must consider how to preserve the value of each  “coin” and make wise choices about how we spend them.

Since none of us knows how many coins we have to spend, I encourage you to make sure that your medical professionals are interested in “who you are when your body fails you” and are willing to take your needs and wishes into the picture as they treat your “moving parts.” If your doctors don’t seem to have that philosophy, tell them that their understanding of you as a patient is important to you.  If they don’t “get it” (or can’t take the time to do it because of the systems they are part of), try to replace them now, before you need them for serious decision-making because the number of gold coins left in your bag is limited.

Since I have learned that I have cancer, I am more and more eager to face the fact that I am trading in gold coins that will never be replaced – and more and more determined to turn them in for blessings that are worth the expense.

2020 Update:  I just received a sympathy card from our family’s primary care doctor’s office. The doctor who is mentioned above, wrote this note: “Fred was such a unique patient, a true challenge and a friend.  I know I’ll never meet another person like him. God placed us together for a reason and I believe we were both better for it.”  I just wish I could share this note with Fred.

REFLECTIONS

MULLING IT OVER:  “I think of each day as a gold coin that you are required to trade for something.” When you wake up each morning, think about the day ahead.  You will never get this day back. What are you going to trade for your coin for today? Complaints, angry words, frustration? Peace, patience? Fear? Serenity? Isolation? Friendship? Self-pity? Service? Sadness? Joy? It may help to keep a daily journal of the “trades” you have made.

SCRIPTURE:  Psalm 33 (especially verses 18-22)

PRAYER: “Your creative work, Almighty God, fills me with awe: such power and magnificence! Your providence envelops me with hope: such care and attention! Thank you for being everything to me in Jesus Christ. Amen” (Eugene Peterson in Praying with the Psalms, March 8).

THOUGHT: “Remembering that we can live only one day at a time removes the burdens of the past from our backs and keeps us from dreading the future, which none of us can know anyway”(This is Al-Anon).

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Who Am I When My Body Fails Me? – Part 9: Someone Facing Death

Who am I when my body fails me?”  This is a question we must face when injury or illness takes its toll  on our lives. How do we respond to physical, mental, emotional stresses? How do we view God when we are weak or in pain? How do we cope with the losses we experience?  A series of posts which deals with these questions was first published in 2016.  It may be time for some of us to ask this question again – or for the first time. Individual posts in the series have been revised and will be re-posted on Tuesdays and Saturdays for several weeks. Suggestions for appropriate Scripture passages, prayer, and quotes or questions for reflection have been added.  

Geriatrician Joanne Lynn frequently asks two questions of the audiences of health experts that she speaks to:  “How many of you expect to die?” and in every audience some people do not raise their hands.  Then she asks, “Would you prefer to be old when it happens?”  Again not all the hands are raised.  Human beings prefer living in denial about almost everything:  addiction, climate change, the danges of texting and driving, and racism. But the thing we deny the most, I think, is our own mortality, even as people all around us pass through the milestone of death.

However, it becomes much more difficult to ignore thoughts about dying when our bodies fail us – no matter what age we are.  Phillip Simmons was dying of ALS when he wrote the book Learning to Fall, The Blessings of an Imperfect Life.  In the introduction, he jokes that “life is, after all, a terminal condition”  He goes on to say that “knowing my days are numbered has meant the chance to look at all of life’s questions.  What I have learned from asking them is that a fuller consciousness of my own mortality has been my best guide to being more fully alive.”

In one chapter of the book he describes the mud season that descends on New Hampshire just before spring.  The geological realities of that state have left a “meager soil, laid like a thick sponge on an unyielding granite bed.  With the March thaw that sponge sops full.”  It is the season of mud.  He goes on to say, “We fear this time of year not so much for where it is taking us – the spring bloom and summer roar – but for what have have to go through to get there.” 

He then uses the mud season as a metaphor for the realities of life.  “We all have our personal mud seasons . . . . We need the mud for what grows from it.  Every mud season is a kind of death, with resurrection lying on the other side. . . As I enter my various mud seasons, I’ve learned to ask:  What death is this? Or what is within me that needs to die? and out of this death, what resurrection will come.”

When our bodies fail us we have the opportunity to prepare for the concept of death.  We also can learn to appreciate life. And to look forward to the resurrection that follows.  Simmons teaches us to do that:

“The example of Jesus, and the experience of mud season, also reminds me of a harsher truth: to be reborn we first must die. The way to Jerusalem likes through mud. Dying, like mud can take many forms, but every death in the sense I mean, is a letting go.  We let go of amabition, of pride, of ego. We let go of relationships, of perfect health, of loved ones who go before us to their own deaths. We let go of insisting that the world can be a certain way. Letting go of any of these things can seem the failure of every design, loss of every cherished hope. But in letting them go, we may also let go fear, let go our white-knuckled grip on a life that never seems to meet our expectations, let go our anguished hold on smaller selves our spirits have outgrown.  We may feel that we have let go of life itself, only to find ourselves in a new one, freer, roomier, more joyful than we could have imagined.”

Who am I when my body fails me? Someone who is learning to face death instead of deny it. I, for one, am grateful that the realities of illnesses or disabiities usher us in to an opportunity to face our own death’s squarely. I am glad for the chance to “let go” and find a new life that is “freer, roomier, and more joyful” that I could have imagined.

REFLECTION

MULLING IT OVER: Simmons says that “every mud season is a kind of death, with resurrection lying on the other side.”  Are you in a “mud season”? What are you learning from it? What are you letting go because of it? He also reminds us that consciousness of our own mortality is a guide to being fully alive.  Have you experienced that? How can you become more conscious of your mortality?

SCRIPTURE:  Psalm 136

PRAYER: “I know I am not the first one to feel pain and to suffer, O God, but while it is happening to me, I feel as if I am.  I look to You for comfort, strength, and a final day when You will set all things right through Jesus Christ. Amen” (Eugene Peterson in Praying with the Psalms, November 8).

THOUGHT:    “Pain works for us an eternal hope. We all have had the experience that is only in the days of affliction that our true interests are furthered: (Oswald Chambers in Hope is a Holy Promise).

2020 Update: For years I have watched my husband’s slow but sure decline in health. For months I have watched him dying. I saw him slog through the mud season. I saw him fight against the limitations of his body and mind. And then I saw him gradually yield and let go of all the things Simmons mentioned. I wish I had been able to let go sooner, but eventually I learned that his path was the right one. His death this week was unexpected; he had been feeling better under Hospice care. But when it was time, we both benefited from  his preparation for death and the reality of the resurrection that followed.

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Who Am I When My Body Fails Me? – Part 8: Someone Learning To Accept Powerlessness

“Who am I when my body fails me?”  This is a question we must face when injury or illness takes its toll  on our lives. How do we respond to physical, mental, emotional stresses? How do we view God when we are weak or in pain? How do we cope with the losses we experience?  A series of posts which deals with these questions was first published in 2016.  It may be time for some of us to ask this question again – or for the first time. Individual posts in the series have been revised and will be re-posted on Tuesdays and Saturdays for several weeks. Suggestions for appropriate Scripture passages, prayer, and quotes or questions for reflection have been added.

Lately my husband and I have been nearly overwhelmed with health issues, some new and some longstanding. As I waded through these months (in very heavy boots), I learned some answers to the question this series asks:  Who am I when my body fails me?

One thing I have seen in sharp relief is that our false narratives (the stories we tell ourselves and each other about life)  visit very often when we are ill.  My strongest false narratives are:  “you must spend your time productively” and “you must take care of yourself – no asking for help.” These have been passed down in my family along with Dutch genes for many generations.

These inbred “rules”  informed my mother’s decision at the end of WWII to go to seminary soon after she saw the photo of a cross with my chaplain father’s name on it planted in a military cemetery in France. Putting aside all grief (supposedly), she moved herself and me (at 3 years of age) across the country so she could “take his place” by becoming a missionary.  For several months she struggled, until the president of the seminary called my grandfather to tell him to come and get her; she was having a “nervous breakdown.” Her two false narratives (“be productive”and “don’t ask for help”) caused havoc in our lives then and  through the next six decades.

So, who am I when my body fails me?  I am someone who needs to change narratives quickly! Being physically or emotionally ill requires new narratives: “do only what you can” and “ask for help.” These were very hard to accept and practice when I have dutifully obeyed their opposites for many years.

Adjusting to the “do only what you can” Narrative

The first change I had to make was to try to gracefully accept being sidelined.  I have practiced the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude for many years.  However, I decided when I would stop the activity and just “be.”  Now, I had no choice.  If I didn’t feel well enough to read or even watch TV, I just sat still and looked out the window. Or I took a nap, several naps on some days. I wrestled daily with “not being productive.” I established new routines. I lowered my expectations. Always a planner, I learned to make every second count when I felt okay, but to let it all go when I didn’t.  I had to learn to forgive my “laziness” at the same time I was learning to accept my limitations.  This struggle is called detachment, letting go of life-thwarting narratives and learning new ones.  This, I think is one of the blessings of dealing with “a body that is failing.”

Asking for Help

Asking for help was harder. As news of  our new situation (both people in our family “down” at the same time) got out, many people offer to help. I usually tried to find a way to do it all by myself first. However, pain is very instructive – and insistent.  When you can’t tolerate the pain, you have to find another way. So when my sister offered to help clean out a very messy garden, I finally said yes.  The garden looks beautiful, and we had a great time of conversation and laughter.

When my grandson’s help with mowing the lawn was offered, I said yes, and my son and I had a lovely conversation while Nathaniel mowed the lawn.

When my nephew offered to truck three large bags full of weeds to the dumpster in our park, my first reaction was, “That’s okay, I can do it myself.” Actually I could NOT do it myself.  I could barely haul them out of the garden. So I said, “That would be wonderful.” And we chatted for a while he was here.

When it was time to buy mulch, I asked for help loading the heavy bags and then putting it in the trunk. (This “ask” was a miracle of soweakness 3rts; I always prided myself on being the old lady who could handle physical tasks.) A nice young man with the title of “loader” was happy to help.   I learned that he lives in South Haven and his best friend owns a bike shop so he has front row seats for parades.

I began to learn that surprising and interesting things can happen when I allow people to help. Now when people ask about helping, I anticipate the serendipity that will come with the help instead of bristling at the thought that I need help.

Who am I when my body fails me?  Someone who is  much less driven and much more accepting of my own powerlessness.  It’s looking like a fair trade right now.

2020 Note: My multiple myeloma, while incurable, has been “controlled” for several years; I have passed the life expectancy of four years for this disease. I still visit the oncologist every three months to see if I need to start chemo again.  October 8 is the next of these visits.

Also, I have mentioned my husband often in these blog posts. Sadly Fred died yesterday afternoon at home after a long illness.  Fortunately we brought in Hospice early. But his death was still unexpected because he was doing better under Hospice care. I was so grateful for their help before and after he died.

REFLECTION

MULLING IT OVER: How are you at asking for help?  Would you rather maintain control and do it yourself? A friend who has often helped us told me, If you did ask me for this help, I would miss a chance of using my God-given gifts.  Powerlessness is an attitude of receiving rather than giving.  Ask someone to help you do some.

SCRIPTURE:  Deuteronomy 15:11; Matthew 10:8; :ile 3: 10-11; Romans 12:13, Galatians 6:2; Phillipians 2:4.

PRAYER:  Lord God,  help  me abandon my pride and ask for help when I need it – from You, from my family, from my friends, from people whom You soend into my life.  Help me to acept help, even when it feels uncomfortable, remembering that I am giving someoneee the opportunity to share his or her gift with me.

THOUGHT”  “Be strong enough to stand alone, smart enough to know when you need help, and brave enough to ask for it” (Ziad K. Abelnour).

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Who Am I When My Body Fails Me? – Part 7: Good News and Bad News

Who am I when my body fails me?”  This is a question we must face when injury or illness takes its toll  on our lives. How do we respond to physical, mental, emotional stresses? How do we view God when we are weak or in pain? How do we cope with the losses we experience?  A series of posts which deals with these questions was first published in 2016.  It may be time for some of us to ask this question again – or for the first time. Individual posts in the series have been revised and will be re-posted on Tuesdays and Saturdays for several weeks. Suggestions for appropriate Scripture passages, prayer, and quotes or questions for reflection have been added.  

GOOD NEWS AND NOT SO GOOD NEWS

The day had passed like all recent Thursdays:  weight, blood pressure, temperature, oxygen, blood draw, chemotherapy injection. But this day had one high point. It had been 16 weeks since my diagnosis of myeloma, a blood cancer, and it was time to hear about next steps from the oncologist. Treatment had been going well, and he had said earlier that perhaps the drug regimen could be eased somewhat. I was really hoping that would be the case.

The good news was that the bad protein which is the cancer could not be detected in my blood. The not so good news was that because I was doing well on this therapy, the maintenance dose would remain the same for another eight months: 13 chemo pills, 10 steroid pills, one anti-nausea pill every Thursday followed by a chemo injection.  This is not remission; this is maintenance.

Other not so good news is that I cannot stay on these chemo medications for too much longer. Each causes a different harmful side effect. There is no guarantee that whichever drug the doctor chooses next will be as effective. When the drugs stop working, the cancer will take its course. The reality of incurable cancer hits home again.

One other piece of good news that morning was that two books I had eagerly put on hold at the library were finally available, so I checked them out.  Since I had to chauffeur my husband around during the afternoon,  I started reading one of them as I waited in the car.

When I got home, I remembered that it was Thursday. Thursday night is a night I don’t sleep at all – the steroids are still popping.  In fact, most nights see only a three or four hours of sleep until Wednesday night, and the next day the whole cycle starts over. But now, I realized, I could use these sleepless hours to good advantage!

I watched American Idol and then I set aside the 754 page book I had been reading during the week (Sam Phillips, The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll, a great book if you love early rock and roll) and picked up the book I had been reading in the car: On My Own by Diane Rehm, the former host of one of my favorite show on NPR. Diane Rehm’s husband John died after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. The story of how he began slipping away from her from the day of that diagnosis until the day of his death in June, 2015 and how she adapted to life as a caregiver and widow is breathtaking.

I finished that book in tears at about 1:00 a.m. and began the second: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a rising neurosurgeon and neuroscientist who was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 36 and died just a few years later in March, 2015. At 4:30 a.m. I closed that one also in tears and realized what a gift I had been given by both authors. (Look for more information on both in the Book Recommendations page on the home page of this blog).

I have learned so much from these two deep thinkers who write beautifully about their deepest joy and pain. I am sure many more posts  will be influenced by their journeys. For now I will close with quotes from each of the books that turned my good news, not so good news day into a blessing.  First from Diane Rehm:

“When John and I first walked into this apartment, gauging whether it might be right for us the first words he said, “Diane look at the light!” And indeed, the apartment was totally free from shadow, wide windows  opening onto parkland fourteen stories below, sunshine pouring into every room.

I found myself thinking about those first moments in the apartment when, last night, I began wondering whether John had “seen the light” as he lay dying.  And, alternatively, whether John is telling me, from wherever he is, to “look at the light.” To look ahead, to plan, to investigate with excitement what possibilities lie ahead.  . . . Now, in this new place in which I find myself I hope I, too, can see the light ahead, that I am open to new avenues, new views of life, knowing that what is past lies only in my heart, and that possibilities of the future, if I allow them to enter, await me.”

And now from Paul Kalanithi:

“Time for me is now double-edged: every day brings me further from the low of my last relapse but closer to the next recurrence – and eventually, death.  Perhaps later than I think, but certainly sooner than I desire. There are, I imagine two responses to that realization. The most obvious might be an impulse to frantic activity: to “live life to its fullest,” to travel to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day.  It is a tired hare who now races.  And  even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoiselike approach. I plod. I ponder. Some days I simply persist.

If time dilates when one moves at high speeds, does it contract when one barely moves at all? It must: the days have shortened considerably.

With little to distinguish one day from the next, time has begun to feel static. In English, we use the word time in different ways: “The time is now 2:45” versus “I’m going through a tough time.”  These days, time feels less like the ticking clock and more like a state of being. Languor settles in. There’s a feeling of openness . . . . Now the time of day means nothing, the day of the week scarcely more.”

Whether it is looking ahead to the light of new possibilities or becoming more adjusted to the shortening of days, I will always be grateful to these brave writers for helping me see the good news in the midst of the not so good news.

REFLECTION

MULLING IT OVER:  Write in your journal or draw or paint or share with a friend your not so good days.  How can you turn a not-so-good day into a good day?  How can you celebrate a good day?

SCRIPTURE:  Psalm 34:15-22

PRAYER:  “Thank  you, dear God, for Your words of comfort, Your acts of deliverance, Your healing presence. When I suffer, be to me Savior, Healer, Companion, in Jesus Christ, Amen” (Eugene Peterson in Praying with the Psalms, March 14).

THOUGHT:  “When you are feeling weighed down by your circumstances, change your perspective by looking up to me. . . .Instead of engaging in this battle you cannot win, use your energy to cope with the situation and learn from it.  Trust that I will lift you up – relieve your situation –  in My perfect wisely appointed time” (Sarah Young in Jesus Today, p.92).

2020 Note: My multiple myeloma, while incurable, has been “controlled” for several years; I have passed the life expectancy of four years for this disease. I still visit the oncologist every three months to see if I need to start chemo again.

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Who Am I When My Body Fails Me – Part 6: Someone Who Empties Herself

“Who am I when my body fails me?”  This is a question we must face when injury or illness takes its toll  on our lives. How do we respond to physical, mental, emotional stresses? How do we view God when we are weak or in pain? How do we cope with the losses we experience?  A series of posts which deals with these questions was first published in 2016.  It may be time for some of us to ask this question again – or for the first time. Individual posts in the series have been revised and will be re-posted on Tuesdays and Saturdays for several weeks. Suggestions for appropriate Scripture passages, prayer, and quotes or questions for reflection have been added.  

Sometimes life is a boxing match. The jabs, the right hook, the sucker punch all take their toll, but then comes the unexpected knock-out punch. And we go down. Cancer, heart attacks, strokes, coronavirus, and other punches our body undergoes are like the punches of a boxing match.  Recently the punches  just kept on coming in my life and I began to wonder: when we have “gone down for the count,” how do we get back up? A boxer relies on his training, the people in his “corner,” and his “heart.” And so do we. But I’m understanding that, as often is the case, the best defense is a good offense. And our offense against the struggles of life is a continual “emptying” of ourselves.

The Scripture’s terminology of “emptying” comes from Philippians 2: 7  in which Jesus is said to have “emptied himself.”  Theologians have a lot to say about this term.  In this post, I am using the context of  self-renunciation.  Jesus did not cease to be God, but he did set aside his heavenly glory, as well as his independent authority, completely submitting himself to the will of his father.

Here is how the Amplified Bible puts Paul’s direction to us  in Philippians 2: 5-7:

Have this same attitude in yourselves which was in Christ Jesus [look to Him as your example in selfless humility], who, although He existed in the form and unchanging essence of God [as One with Him, possessing the fullness of all the divine attributes—the entire nature of deity], did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped or asserted [as if He did not already possess it, or was afraid of losing it]; but emptied Himself [without renouncing or diminishing His deity, but only temporarily giving up the outward expression of divine equality and His rightful dignity] by assuming the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men [He became completely human but was without sin, being fully God and fully man].

It is here, in this self-renunciation and submission to the will of God, that we can live as Apprentices of Christ by continually imitating his act of emptying himself. John the Baptist displayed this attitude when he said, “He [Jesus]  must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30).

Let’s look at this somewhat whimsically.  Imagine a large and dingy basement room.  You have already removed the broken furniture and piles of past treasures you no longer want (false narratives, wrong perspectives about God, legalistic religion). But there is still a lot of cleaning to do. So you begin by sweeping out the dust of anger. You scrape bitterness off the walls. You pull down the cobwebs of self-pity. You attack the corners where piles of resentment still seethe. You wash windows clouded by despair.  You even sweep the ceiling to eliminate hidden wishes for revenge. You poke into nooks and crannies to purge jealousy, pride,  impatience, judgmentalism,  and ‘holier than thou” attitudes.  You carry out beaten up boxes full of greed.

Then you sit down to take stock of what you have done.  You see the Light shining through the newly cleaned windows. You open the door to the outside to let the fresh air of the Holy Spirit blow through the entire space. You feel so revived  that you decide to leave the door open, even though the room may become uncomfortable at times.

Viewing the newly purged room, you tie on even tighter your attitude of surrender and vow to take up this cleaning process everyday – even if the room seems sparkling clean. You renounce your own clingy perspectives and desires and vow to submit to the will of God. Like John the Baptist, you are undertaking the process of making Jesus greater and yourself less. By emptying yourself, you are creating a soul-space where God is free to work . . . and you are free to obey. And you are free with the Holy Spirit’s help to accept your body’s weaknesses and live your remaining days, no matter how many there, with a spirit of acceptance, not bitterness

REFLECTION

MULLING IT OVER:  Find your favorite chair and spend some time imagining your “basement room.”  What have you already removed.? What is remaining to clean out?  Is there enough Light coming in through the window to help you you continue cleaning out the junk that holds you captive? Is there enough Light coming through the window to help you face  your current struggles?  Dust off the windows and let the Spirit in.

SCRIPTURE:  Matthew 16: 24-26

PRAYER: “Here am I, the Servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to Your Word.” (Luke 1:38).

THOUGHT:  “Every soul belongs to God and exists by His pleasure.  God being who and what HE is, and we being who and what we are, the only thinkable relation between us is one of full Lordship, on His part and complete admission on ours.  We owe him every honor that is in our power give him.  Our everlasting grief lies in giving Him anything less”(A.W. Tozer in The Pursuit of God).

 

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