Saturday, April 30, 2011


Clearly, I meant to post this yesterday. I wrote it in the morning, intending to let it simmer, but spent a quiet evening with a friend and forgot until I'd gotten into bed. So, please imagine it's Friday!

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
A Collect for Fridays, Morning Prayer I, Book of Common Prayer

            For centuries, the Church observed Friday as the day Jesus died, first with fasting from all food and then with a less stringent fast, eating no flesh—only fish—that day. That custom has been lost in our modern, post-Vatican II culture. Friday is now celebrated as the last day of the work week or class week, with perhaps a party of sorts at home, at a bar, at the sorority house.
            Today I am very conscious of where I am not going—to the chemo room. This hasn’t struck me in a while, but for me, Friday is linked less to Christ’s curcifixion than to another kind of death: cancer cell death. For two Fridays of every three, I was in chemo for much of the day. The first week involved a double whammy: IV/IP, which meant that I received drugs both intravenously and through a port intraperitoneally (into my abdomen). The process took most of the day, 9 to 5, as if I were one of those people still going to the office. The next week was a shorter day, with only IV therapy. The treatment usually was finished by 2 or 3 on those days. One week to begin to feel better, and then we began again.
            Chemo is not crucifixion. It’s all very hygienic and controlled. I’ve even heard of chemo rooms where friends and family could gather in support of the patient, but at the hospital where I received my chemo, visitors were not encouraged. The room was small, not intended to be accommodating to lookers-on. I came to appreciate this, although I did not on the first day, when I was as terrified as I’d been in a long, long time, and the friend who brought me could not stay. (She wanted to, even though I’d told her it wasn’t going to be possible.)
            I don’t know that I’ve ever come to think of chemo as “the way of life and peace,” though I did find some hidden blessings, my health not the least of them. Chemo is an assault on all the body’s cells. For some of us, it leaves a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. How else to explain that this Friday morning, with the sun coming out after storms and the birds singing, nearly four years after I finished chemo, I am thinking about it still? I watched a DVD of a West Wing show last night, with gunshot wounds and hospital scenes prominently featured, and I could not stop trembling. Even writing about it, I am close to tears. It was all make-believe, a creation of Aaron Sorkin’s mind, but the hospital scenes were too real, even now. I am still looking for the way of life and peace.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Staying Put

When I was growing up in a conservative church, the answer to any problem was twofold: read the Bible and pray. This is good advice as far as it goes, but there are some days when these practices don’t seem to help very much. Psalm 143:4-7a presents a discouraging sequence of events:
My spirit faints within me;
my heart within me is desolate.
I remember the time past;
I muse upon all your deeds;
I consider the works of your hands.
I spread out my hands to you;
my soul gasps to you like a thirsty land.
O LORD, make haste to answer me; my spirit fails me.
            Sometimes, even when we do everything “right,” it all goes downhill pretty quickly. To move from a fainting spirit to a failing spirit, all the while musing on God and beseeching for help, seems like a denial of the power of God. The psalmist goes on to ask for guidance and deliverance from enemies, reminding God of qualities such as loving-kindness and goodness. And there it ends, without any clear, ringing declaration of victory.
            I don’t always deal very well with cancelled plans, even when they are changed for good and noble causes. Facing four days of almost no outside contact coupled with work stoppages, I was at a loss. I began planning a four-day weekend away; I might get up the next morning and head out, disregarding high gas prices.
However, before I could get out the suitcases, my friend Liz, whose weekend plans had also gone west, sent me a blessing in an e-mail, “Let’s both have a peaceful day.” I stopped my dithering and took a deep breath, realizing that the plans I’d been frantically making to run away for the weekend were not leading to peace, but to agitation: concerns about packing, cat care, and the financial prudence of such a gesture.
            Instead of running away, I walked to the library to return some books and browse for ideas and new books to read. There were tiny, brave yellow flowers and snowdrops up in some yards. A new book I’d been wanting to read was sitting on the shelf.
            When I came home, with a lighter step than I’d had upon leaving, I sent out two e-mail invitations for the weekend, both of which were accepted, and got a green light on some work. I’d received a gracious response to the plea I read this morning, “Let me hear of your loving-kindness in the morning.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We See Jesus

I first wrote this before I had given any thought to cancer, which is therefore not mentioned in this piece. But I think the arts renew us during treatment just as they do when we are tired and overloaded from life.

When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, Peter James, and John were with him. They saw him talking with Moses and Elijah, the text says, and then—they saw no one but Jesus alone. “But we see Jesus,” the writer of Hebrews says, “the author and finisher of our faith.”
I thought of those passages one night, sitting at the Schuster Performing Arts Center for a Dayton Philharmonic concert. The guest artist was Itzhak Perlman, the violinist whom I’d first seen when I was in junior high, the man who helped shape my interest in classical music. That had been more than forty years ago, when he was a young phenomenon. I thought about his playing seated, because of his polio and leg braces, and how that must have encouraged me, wearing a full-body brace of my own because of my scoliosis.
            I often have a hard time settling into a concert, and that night was no exception. I had cut my corners a bit tight, so was breathless from racing, and in an uncomfortable seat, distracted by people around me. The orchestra played the opening number, and then Perlman came out, lurching with his steel crutches, followed by conductor Neal Gittleman carrying the violin. I think we applauded, just for Perlman’s courage and persistence in the face of disability.
            And then the Mozart violin concerto began. And I closed my eyes and I forgot the men and women on the stage, and Neal directing them, and the grizzled-headed man seated with a violin. For a few moments, there was only Mozart. I saw him, playing a violin, notes that made him happy to play, in the same way that the three favored disciples had seen Jesus only.
            That kind of clarity eludes me most of the time. Life comes too much and too fast, and I experience sensory overload. Too many conversations can quickly weary me. The singleminded focus we pray for at the close of the Eucharist is difficult to maintain. One way to remind myself is through art, when I can lose myself and my surroundings in a piece of music or visual art, to be grateful for sound or color or form. In all of the arts, we see Jesus, the giver of all good gifts, the source. The psalmist writes of Jerusalem, “The singers and dancers will say, all my fresh springs are in [God].” When I ponder how Mozart or any other composer can continue to create new melodies—or even rework old themes—I think of the fresh springs available to all of us, in whatever work we are given to do.

Monday, April 25, 2011

You Gotta Have Heart

I wrote this piece on a Sunday more than four years ago; the poor test results were just the prelude to my cancer experience. Everyone dealing with serious illness has to have a lot of heart; the same is true for their caregivers.

On Thursday morning, a medical professional used the words “wake-up call” about a chart of my numbers, which are nearly all too high, putting me at risk for heart disease or a stroke. I struggle to rise out of the warm, comfortable bed of beliefs I’ve lived by for years, but I’m no happier about a medical wakeup call than I am about the literal alarm clock going off. Another of my favorite foolish beliefs, the one about the rules not applying to me, has gone by the wayside. I’m facing facts, and I don’t like doing so one bit.
            In this somewhat truculent mood, I betook myself to church today, where every other word was heart. It was the subtext of the entire worship service, even if no one heard it except me. It’s in the Collect for Purity that the priest says at the beginning of the service: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open. . . cleanse the thoughts of our hearts.” I’ve heard that prayer hundreds of times over several years, but I heard it differently this morning. The word was also in the collect for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, “Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love.” Our Gospel hymn this morning was an old favorite, “Come Thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace. . . Here’s my heart, oh take and seal it.” In the Gospel reading from Mark 2:1-12, the scribes are “questioning in their hearts” Jesus’ statement forgiving the paralytic man’s sins. We pray the collect for peace after the Prayers of the People, which begins “Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart. . .” And in our confession of sin, we admit we have not loved God “with our whole heart.” The priest urges us at the beginning of the Eucharist, “Lift up your hearts.”
            Heart was the quality of four friends in the Gospel story who opened a hole in the roof to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus. Arriving at a house in Capernaum where Jesus was staying and finding the crowd blocking access to him, they eschewed the door and conventional means for the roof. I have to wonder about that. It’s a creative solution, no doubt, but wouldn’t you think there’d be a point at which Jesus, noticing that the noise overhead wasn’t just a mouse, would stop preaching and direct the crowd to make room? I’m trying to imagine the state of the homeowner’s heart, watching his or her roof being dismantled.
            Heart is what does the seemingly impossible, this 10-ounce pump moving a third of a cup of blood with each beat, for a total of 1,500 to 2,000 gallons per day. It beats about 38 million times every year. I’ve been asking a lot of my heart lately. It’s time to lift it up to the Lord and change how I’m living, to take better care of that amazing muscle.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Attempting the Impossible

In Mark’s Gospel, after the crucifixion, the women who’ve followed Jesus to the very bitter end—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—buy spices to anoint the body after the Sabbath. Mark says they’d seen where the body was laid. As they head toward the tomb, they talk quietly among themselves.
            They expect a dead Jesus, a body to anoint after the hasty burial before the Sabbath began. As they walk, they fret to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” In Mark, no Roman soldiers guard the tomb, so moving the stone is their only concern.
            I love these women. They have no reasonable hope of moving the stone themselves; Mark says it was very large. None of the men who’d followed Jesus took part in this early morning errand. Yet the women go, because this is a last opportunity to honor their beloved Jesus and to fulfill Jewish law and custom. They’re in shock, still, moving on autopilot as one does after a death, doing the next thing. They’re probably also exhausted; grief drains energy.
            Perhaps, having seen the example that Jesus set, they figure something or someone will turn up. It has to be done. Forward. Their diligence is rewarded; when they arrive at the tomb, the stone has already been rolled back—but there is no body. Just a young man in a white robe, who tells them that Jesus has been raised and they will see him in Galilee.
            Every day people get up and do the impossible. They show up for their own lives, even when that means facing a chemo treatment on a day they already feel exhausted beyond words. They sit in labs, trying to understand the complexity that is cancer. They work tirelessly as advocates in a health care system that favors those who don’t need to use it. And they witness their own small resurrections: hair and strength slowly returning after treatment, good news following a surgery, a gene isolated in a petri dish.
            The stone is rolled away. Maybe not in the way we expected or hoped, but at some point it’s gone, by some miracle we cannot hope to understand. This morning, it’s gray and damp, not very Easter morning-like. In the lull between storms, the birds are singing madly. Whatever impossible task we face, we are in good company.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


 One spring morning during our worship service, I felt as if I were back in the 60s witnessing Flower Power bloom again. Across the front of the church stood a group of some forty high schoolers who’d spent Friday to Sunday in our church. They were part of a diocesan youth gathering called Exodus, which uses the metaphor of the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt to focus on the movement of God’s people. We had volunteered to feed and shelter them; they were joining our morning worship service only long enough to offer us their gratitude with words and flowers. As they left the sanctuary, they distributed daisies to us; daisies that had been dyed colors God simply forgot to think of when She was making the original design. At first I wasn’t even sure they were real.
            But when one of them handed me a turquoise flower and thanked me, I knew the flowers were as genuine as the teens. I watched our priest’s older son go up to the altar and tuck a daisy behind his mother’s left ear. Daisies began sprouting from pockets, buttonholes, locks of hair. We all looked the better for them.
At Eucharist, the servers’ somber clerical outfits were enlivened: each woman wore her flower—blue, yellow, orange—behind one ear. The altar flowers were yellow and orange, and it looked as if the teens had carefully coordinated their choices. There’s a stained glass Jesus-in-glory behind the altar, and that morning even Jesus’ yellow crown resembled a daisy’s corona.
            The poet e.e. cummings wrote, “I thank heaven someone is crazy enough to give me a daisy.” Jesus said “Consider the lilies,” but daisies can also prompt our thinking!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Other Hardest Part

Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-30, King James Version

I’ve just been reading an article on fish farming in Tanzania in the latest magazine from Heifer International. One fish farmer decides to take seriously his pledge to pass on the gift of fish fingerlings he received; he teaches his blind neighbor to be a fish farmer as well. The blind man recounted that the hardest part was breaking the sun-baked soil to dig a pond. Then he went on to say the other hardest part was hauling the manure without modern tools.
            It made me smile, this charming sentence that’s not grammatically correct in English, where hardest is the superlative degree, and two of them are not possible. Then I realized that I could use that to talk about cancer.
            Because for me, everything was the other hardest part. The pain that stopped my life, the waiting for surgery, the diagnosis, the port, chemo, losing my hair, discovering a second cancer, the repeated surgeries for that, waiting between appointments to see if the cancers had returned—all of these are the hardest part. For someone as stubborn and independent as I am, even allowing people to help me was the hardest part.
            With the ovarian cancer (the dangerous one) in remission for almost four years now, it should be getting easier. In some ways it is, but the fear and dread of recurrence never leave entirely. I’ve seen too many women back for second, third, fourth, fifth rounds of treatment to be complacent or say, “I’ve beaten it.” My gynecologic oncologist says that ovarian cancer is like a dandelion head after it’s past blossom, and that little cancer seeds spread throughout the abdomen like dandelion seeds on the breeze. He’s a thorough man, and so thoroughly washed out my abdominal cavity after the surgery. Still.
            It’s Holy Week, when I am supposed to be focusing on the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. I think every bit of it must have been the other hardest part. It didn’t take his knowledge as the Son of God to see what was going to happen. When Jesus proposed going to Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, to heal Lazarus, “doubting” Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).
            Jesus never promised us an easy road or a life without burdens. He offered his followers a yoke, the kind they use on oxen. The difference is that this yoke is easy, because he’s the one we’re yoked with, and he carries the heaviest burdens so I don’t have to. When the burden of the other hardest part becomes too heavy, I know I’ve tried to shoulder part of the burden that isn’t mine to carry. And I can set it down.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Of Church Fans, Music, and Aging

I wrote this post some years ago. On this gray and chilly spring day, it's nice to remember the intense heat of summer.

They still exist, those heavy cardboard papers on an overgrown popsicle stick. They still have the reproduction paintings I remember from church bulletin covers and the fans: Jesus, a light glowing around him (an aura, we’d say now) standing at the door and knocking, as Revelation 3 says he does; Jesus as the good shepherd; Jesus presiding over the Last Supper. Blessed as I am to worship in an old church that’s added air conditioning, I’d forgotten those fans. But it all came back, the Sunday nights of sweltering on hard wooden pews after the sun had baked the building all day, the brick exterior retaining the heat, trying to catch a breeze from one of the windows cranked open, wafting Jesus on a stick back and forth, feeling the sweat trickle down my spine.
            A friend and I had gone to an old church in the village for a joint concert presented by the community chorus and a group of five women best known for playing Celtic music. In true egalitarian style, the groups took turns: the chorus, the Celts, the two groups together. It got cooler after the sun went down, but we were still longing for air.
            The music was worth staying for. Music is almost always worth staying for, whatever the physical discomfort. In addition to the loveliness of sound, last night included unexpected bonuses. The Celtic women had branched out; they included a Croatian courting dance, Licko Kolo. My maternal grandmother had come from Austria and spoke Croatian; I wondered if she had known this song, had danced with the necklace representing her dowry around her neck. Thinking of my grandmother—who was old by the time I knew her and lived to be 95—as a young girl was soothing. Most people, I suspect, would prefer to be remembered as they were before they became old and ill.
            The day before I’d seen a video—not even worthy of indie film status, but a true labor of love—about the Angel of Colombia. When still a child, a boy named Alviero had become concerned about the plight of the abandoned elderly in his barrio. He organized a squad a guardian angels—children like himself, to help the old ones. The story is incredible; this nine-year-old finding a way to feed up to forty elderly people, begging food at the market for them, getting medicine, seeing that they were bathed regularly, organizing exercise and dance classes to get them moving and rekindle their interest in life. His passion has resulted in a 135-bed facility for them. In one segment, he was introducing a shrivelled crone to the gathering—she had been the first Miss Colombia. He listened to the stories and remembered them as they had been before he knew them, so great was his imagination.
            That movie, my grandmother, the older members of the community chorus, all wove together as I watched and listened to the music. When the group sang an Indonesia lullaby, I saw one of the grandmothers cradling her black music notebook like a baby, rocking softly back and forth as she sang. Ah, the sweetness that music gives, the softening, the remembrance.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Sound of My Weeping

 I grow weary because of my groaning; every night I drench my bed and flood my couch with tears. My eyes are wasted with grief and worn away because of all my enemies. Depart from me, all evildoers, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
Psalm 6: 6-8, Book of Common Prayer

            Years ago, when no one spoke the words “breast cancer” aloud, Betty Rollins wrote First, You Cry, one of the earliest memoirs about the experience of having cancer. Tears are a reasonable reaction to what in many people’s minds is a death sentence. Some people (like me) go numb and cry later, when the shock’s novocaine has worn off. All along the way to renewed health (in one form or another), there are way stations for tears: painful or humiliating treatments, further bad news, or relief.
            When my father died of a massive coronary, I was living a thousand miles away. I cried, went home to my family and cried some more, and decided that not crying was the better choice. In my almost 25-year-old mind, not crying provided a witness to how God could comfort us. I went back to my classroom and was fine.
            Except I wasn’t. I cried in the shower in the morning when no one could hear me. And many nights, my roommate drove us to the ocean, where I sat on the seawall and cried, my wailing drowned by the sound of surf.
            At some point, we’re all cried out. At least for the moment. For me, the beauty of this passage is that in the midst of the drenching and flooding, the wasting and wearing away, we know that God hears us. In another psalm, the writer asks that God put the tears he’s cried into a bottle. I don’t know how that would help, but perhaps it’s meant as a sign that the tears have value, the way that items in a museum exhibit have value. Ah, these are the tears she wept for her father. These are her cancer tears.
            There’s no shame in weeping. We need the tears as an emotional release. They soften us, breaking down the illusion of separateness and independence we sometimes try to maintain. We have a right to our tears, and no one can tell us when it’s time to dry our eyes. We will know.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Blessing the Work

“He who does not toot his own horn, his horn shall not be tooted,” intoned the college professor self-mockingly, holding up his new book for our class to admire.
His words ran counter to everything I’d heard in church about the need for humility. After all, the meek—not the proud—would inherit the earth. The church’s teachings went hand in hand with my family’s. “Who does he think he is?” was an oft-heard question. Completing the triple threat was society’s conditioning that women were to be the mostly silent “power behind the throne,” not the power sitting on it. So I learned not to value my own work, unless it was housework or done in service of others. Too often we heard a portion of Proverbs 31 read on Mother’s Day. Among the qualities of the idealized woman portrayed there, preachers emphasized her skills in home management, not those in business management.
So the notion of blessing my own work was foreign to me until I began attending Art and Spirit sessions, which were held in the home of a woman who lives about an hour away. A small group of women gathered around her dining room table to create mandalas, collages or wreaths. After one of us read a short selection of poetry or prose, we maintained a contemplative silence, the music of chant playing in the background.
“It’s about the process,” one woman explained to me as I bemoaned my lack of artistic skill with a brush or watercolors, “not about what you end up with.” To prove that point, after we had completed our work, we gathered in a circle in the living room. Our host lit a candle in our midst and we sat admiring one another’s pieces, which were passed around as each woman explained what she had been thinking about as we worked. Then we each blessed the works lying on the floor in the circle, using both words and the blossoms of flowers waiting in a basket. Each woman moved inside the circle, speaking aloud a blessing. “I bless this opening down here in the corner of the picture.” “I bless the courage I hear in your voice as you talk about this.” “I bless this bright red swirl.” I was always amazed at the things women chose to bless and affirm. We each managed to say something different, dropping petals on the artwork before us.
I can’t throw out my pieces, even the worst of them, the ones I think are ugly. They represent stages of my spiritual growth. They are each a step on the way to believing that my work of thinking and writing—not just my ability to make quiche—has value.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sweet Hosannas Ringing

The conflation of Palm and Passion Sunday in the Episcopal Church usually makes me weep at some point. The red paraments (hangings) on the pulpit, lectern, and altar, the red vestments the priest wears, every cross draped in the color symbolizing blood are a visual blow. The mood changes swiftly mid-service, from the exuberance of Palm Sunday to the miseries of Passion Sunday, and I can’t keep up.
            In the first part of the service, we hear of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey never ridden before and of the crowd’s joyous acclamation. The youngest children at my church re-enact that scene with a procession around the perimeter of the sanctuary. They are given rhythm instruments and follow the cross, waving their palms and making noise, while the adults smile and sing the hymn “All glory, laud, and honor.”
            I manage to keep my composure until about the fourth verse of that song. By then, the words of the refrain and the scene before me have merged past bearing. I have to stop singing and sniffle. “All glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer, King! to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.” The youngest kids are bewildered—nobody has ever let them walk around making such lovely noise in church before. Some of them cry and must be rescued by a parent. Generally the boys thrill more to this than do the girls; today, one of them marched proudly with his tambourine. One year, all movement came to a halt when the children became confused as to whether the parade was going clockwise or counterclockwise. After the song ended, we waited for the children to trail downstairs as Charlotte entered the pulpit to preach.
            “The first Palm Sunday was probably just like that,” Charlotte began, and we all smiled one last time before hearing the gospel about the crucifixion.
            Three people have speaking roles in this gospel reading: the Evangelist/narrator, Jesus, and a third person who reads all the other lines: Judas, Peter, the serving maid, and Pilate. We in the congregation are the crowd, calling for Jesus’ crucifixion, mocking him. Not wishing to be party to this violence, I refuse to participate. Instead, I have cast myself as one of the faithful women followers who watched helplessly as the one they loved and supported died. Like women of most times and places, they have no speaking roles. There is nothing to be said.
            To keep us from utter despair, after the service we sometimes move outside to play in the dirt, beautifying the grounds, spreading mulch, pulling weeds, planting flowers. It’s another metaphor for the spiritual life, of course: a prayer in Ephesians 3:17 asks that the believers might be rooted and grounded in God’s love. Afterwards, we share a meal together, strengthened for our pilgrimage during the week of services and already anticipating the joy of Easter.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Living into the Call

I've recently had an unforeseen opportunity to present a workshop on journaling as a healing tool for cancer survivors. Four years ago, in the midst of my chemo treatments, if you had told me that this would happen ( and that I'd learn PowerPoint along the way!), I'd have been incredulous. Now it seems a logical way to give back. I grew into it.  So it feels right to share this entry, which I wrote a few years ago.

When I was a child, my mother bought clothes for me that were too big, before baggy clothes were a fashion statement even among tweens. When I’d protest, she’d say, “You’ll grow into it,” and before many months had passed, the skirt or the sleeves weren’t too long, but just right.
            Lives are like that, too. We grow into the perfect fit only gradually, and only in hindsight do we see how the path brought us to the place we are now. The long backward view confirms the care of a loving God. This perspective is one of the benefits of aging, as I tell the teens in my church, who are frightened of choosing the “wrong” college or major, frustrated by the pressure to know at age eighteen what career to choose.
            I recall sitting in a church basement with my fellow seminary student, Dee, talking with her about my sense of a call that I was hoping I’d picked up by mistake. I’d been scared by a cluster of several incidents leading me to face the question I’d always brushed off: Am I called to the priesthood? Some of my professors urged me to think about ordination. Nobody laughed when I brought it up. I was deeply afraid.
            Dee was well on her way to pastoral ministry, already exercising the listening and encouraging gifts of that call. She heard my fears and then replied, “You live into the call. When I began, I didn’t see how I could visit people in the hospital or preach a funeral. But as you move forward, things become possible.”
            Her words, both then and in a subsequent letter she wrote me, brought great comfort. After all, I was already in seminary, a step that I’d flirted with for nearly two decades. I was at the moment living into a call I couldn’t name. As it turned out, it wasn’t a call to the priesthood, but to the deep longings of my heart for what I called a seamless life and the chance to write.
“I want to be a doctor, but the responsibility for those lives scares me,” one teenager tells me.
Remembering the conversation with Dee, I say to the lovely young woman before me, “You have to live into the call. You can’t do it all at once. It grows on you gradually. You take baby steps and confirm or deny the call along the way.”
            The next Sunday we looked at stories in Mark’s Gospel. I tell the class that there are two ways to look at the human Jesus. Some people believe he always knew who he was, at the very least from the time he was twelve years old and remained in the temple talking with the priests, when everyone else was on the way home after the annual pilgrimage. Other people believe the truth of his call dawned on him only after his baptism at age thirty.
            We can’t know how it was for Jesus, I tell them, forestalling what seems to me a pointless argument. He was fully God and fully human, which nobody else has been able to pull off, or to explain very well. Perhaps, though, the human part of Jesus just went about his life, realizing only gradually what was being asked of him. We’re all asked to walk by faith and strengthened along the way to live out our own call.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Make us glad by as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.
Psalm 90:15

This Scripture seems to me the ancient equivalent of the modern cry, “I want a do-over!” For each day of affliction, I get a day of gladness; for each year of evil, I receive a year of good. Although it’s appealing in some ways, many things are wrong with the idea in this verse. For starters, God doesn’t afflict us. God’s will for us, as my priest prays at our Wednesday morning healing Eucharist, is wholeness and healing. Secondly, the idea of an even trade is impossible. It’s rare that a day is so completely full of affliction that there’s no gladness to be found, a year so full of evil that we can’t find any good. Life is more complicated than that.
            That said, however, there is a sense of being owed something in recompense for having cancer or enduring treatment. Sometimes, getting another day to live doesn’t feel like enough. We want reparations.
            We need to let go of it, focus instead on finding those moments of joy in the midst of difficulty: a child’s smile, a flower, a kind nurse, or the knowledge that we are never alone in our struggles for healing. We have not only wonderful medical professionals on our side but also, as St. Paul indicated, the Holy Spirit, who prays for us in words too deep to be spoken (Romans 8:26). Small wonder that in just a few verses Paul breaks into one of the great hymns of Scripture—Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Nothing, he concludes, not even death. Not even cancer.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Being Freed

I called to the LORD in my distress; the LORD answered by setting me free.
Psalm 118:5 Book of Common Prayer

            At first, these lines strike me as an example of cross-questions/crazy answers. For a prayer and its consequence, I might pair distress with relief, or bondage with freedom, but not distress with freedom. The more I’ve thought about it, though, it seems the psalmist may have been on to something.
            In our adult education sessions at church recently, we’ve been looking at metaphors and parables. Jesus is the True Vine, and we are the branches, but the truth is that the branches can put forth all sorts of shoots that need lopped off, because they detract from the main purpose of fruit-bearing. In the same way, our lives can easily become luxuriant with lots of interesting vines that are unproductive. It’s not always easy to tell whether a new endeavor will bear fruit, or even if it’s the desired fruit. Sometimes I’ve thought I was producing grapes and ended up with olives.
            I am not a person who is always positive, grateful for my cancer. This does not mean, however, that I am blind to the gifts—there doesn’t seem to be a better word—this disease has brought me. Because in my distress, I was set free from some things that were never going to bear fruit.
            Some people I know manage to maintain most of their lives during cancer treatment. I’m full of admiration for the women I’ve met who keep their jobs and their households, even if they lose their hair. I did keep my job, but as a freelancer, I could stop for a nap whenever I needed one. As a single woman, I could let dishes or laundry go. In general, though, I think people expect less of someone undergoing chemo or radiation. Treatment gives us permission to let go of some of the burden we may not have been aware we were carrying.
            A cancer diagnosis also pulls us up short, reminding us of the reality we may have been ignoring in our busy lives—we, too, are mortal. In light of that fact, how do we wish to spend whatever time we have remaining? What activities that we’ve had to curtail because of treatment do we most miss? What new activities will we add? Several women I know have added cancer activism to their calendars, fitting in walks, programs, and meetings. Some of us added a bit of therapy for our mental health. Some made “bucket lists” to complete or revised an existing list.
            Many people want everything to go back to the way it was before their diagnosis. I understand that and I cannot judge it; I simply can’t go there. For me, the questions had to include, What will I let go? What unproductive shoots will I prune to make room for new growth? How can I be free of some of the tasks that were once a joy but have become a burden? Cancer gives me the opportunity to examine my life and be set free.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Woman in the Tree

 She’s going again, obscured by the green leaves of the oaks above the apartment. All winter I watch her and try to figure out if she means to convey anything beyond my own warped projections.
            Some people see shapes in clouds. When I was a child, I saw a rabbit face in the grainy wood of my bedroom closet and innumerable people and things forming patterns on the bathroom linoleum floor. Now I have a woman in a tree outside my house.
She’s shaped quite like a ship’s masthead, bravely heading into the wind. One of her arms is outstretched to the south. During the worst of winter, I am convinced she is urging me to return to Florida, where I lived for seven years and where I saw snow only once.
“You read the face of the sky but do not discern the signs of the times,” Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, that most righteous of the Jewish people (Matthew 16:3). I sympathize with those Pharisees. It’s so much easier to figure out the meaning in a tree branch than to interpret the times in which I live.
It’s easier now on personal level, though, than it was when I was the age of the young people I’ve taught in Sunday School. I always try in subversive ways to preach the advantages of aging, so that they don’t get caught in the trap of desiring perpetual youth in either their thinking or their appearance. One of the biggest pluses of aging for me is having a track record of God’s good work in the world and in my life. With time and hindsight, it’s easier to see the truth of Paul’s words, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2:9).
Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, closes her Revelations of Divine Love with a question to God: What do these visions mean? She waited fifteen years for an answer, which is a considerable time to wait, even with a track record. At last, the answer came.
“What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love.”
God’s purposes in our lives are for good. God is for us, on our side. Spring makes it easier for me to remember this and to rejoice in it, even without the guidance of a tree pointing south.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Beauty of Persistence

Surviving cancer requires physical and emotional persistence—through the treatments, the check-ups, the recurrences. Even before my diagnosis, I was unconsciously looking for models I could follow.

Several years ago I attended the Columbus Museum of Art’s exhibit “Renoir’s Women.” More than thirty canvases were displayed, some of them new to me, even though I’m a fan of Impressionism. I didn’t pay extra for the audiotape. Instead, I merely skimmed the information accompanying each canvas, on that gray day preferring to soak up pure color rather than printed words.
            Even in skimming, I learned things I didn’t know about Renoir, things I might have learned by reading a good biography: born in Limoges, Renoir began painting china as a young man. He and Monet were lifelong friends. Although no one has been able to calculate precisely how many works he produced, one estimate puts the number at around 6,000. Most touching to me was the fact that in his old age Renoir suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis. He couldn’t walk, but someone would set up a canvas where he wanted it, and his assistants would place the brushes he requested into his claws.
            I have new respect for the painter who persisted, as so many artists persist through personal or physical pain. Old age and its deprivations come to all, even people who put together works of amazing beauty.
            Many places in the Bible offer examples of people who persevered into old age, despite physical or personal difficulties. Simeon and Anna, who met Mary and Joseph in the temple when they brought the infant Jesus in for the post-birth rites, are two stellar examples. Luke writes that Simeon had been promised he would see the Messiah before dying. When Simeon held the child, he burst into the praise that the Church uses for the Compline service, called Nunc Dimittis, from the Latin for the opening words, “Now let your servant depart in peace. . . .” Anna the prophet, a widow of 84 in an era when 40 really was old age, lived in the temple, fasting and praying. She saw Jesus and at once began telling others about him (Luke 2:22–38).
            For me, perhaps the key psalm-prayer for a life of persistence comes from Psalm 71:18: “So even to old age and gray-hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.” Few of us will create 6,000 works of art that will be prized around the globe. However, we can still proclaim God’s might to future generations through our small daily actions, creating a mosaic of faithfulness mirroring God’s own everlasting commitment to us.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Letting It Go

I woke up yesterday in a state that would be called cranky if I were a toddler. I knew what had caused it: I’d had a relapse of belief in the old vengeful god of retribution, who wasn’t coming through and zapping people on my schedule. Absent this god, I had to carry all the hellfire and brimstone around myself. I was Jonah, sitting outside Ninevah, wanting to see my enemy destroyed and mad because God was being merciful, just as I’d suspected all along he would turn out to be (Jonah 4).
            Fortunately, it was the day I was scheduled to see my spiritual director, my soul friend, Bobbi. (She’s described part of her job as “bearing witness,” a term I like. We all sometimes feel as if our lives and contributions are invisible; I can take to Bobbi anything—good or bad—that I want to be noticed.) The fragrance of spring was in the air at her place, where many things are growing. She greeted me and announced her own longing for spring—pansies waiting to be planted sat in her kitchen sink.
            I dumped out the anger and the frustration I felt over my inability to control others’ lives or decisions. She listened and then asked gently, “Would you like to let that go, Judy?”
            It reminds me of one of my favorite healing stories, when Jesus acknowledges the cries of a blind man and asks him, “What do you want?” Jesus doesn’t assume the obvious, knowing that sometimes we’re just not ready to let go of blindness or a desire for vengeance. I can carry a loaded backpack of self-righteousness for a long way on the trail.
            I’d been carrying this anger for several days, though, and I wasn’t much enjoying my own company. The day before I’d read from Psalm 81, which is a recounting of the deliverance from Egypt, God’s words, “I eased his shoulder from the burden; his hands were set free from bearing the load.” I’ve so often applied that verse to my life as being about leaving fundamentalism or becoming a freelancer. I think it’s true about those Big Things, but also true about the “little” things that over time become an unbearable weight. Bobbi helped ease that overloaded pack off my tired shoulders. Like the external world turning to spring, my heart’s world has shifted on its axis, and I am glad.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Singing with the Symphony

With our next concert a little more than a week away, I am posting something I wrote after my first concert. The thrill does not diminish for me. The following spring, the chorale did sing the Beethoven 9th Symphony, but I was not among them. I was in chemo that spring. Through the kindness of our director ("Music is so healing, why don't you sing with us as long as you can?"), I rehearsed with them until I had difficulty breathing deeply enough and didn't think I could stand for an entire performance. I've been blessed to sing with them each year since then.

I wish you could have been there. Last night I sang in a chorus with an orchestra for the first time, and I have to say, there’s nothing quite like standing six feet behind the french horn section while singing triple forte—in German. Today my throat is a little raw, but I’m hoping that my voice will hold out for many years of singing with the Springfield Symphony Chorale, as we are somewhat grandiosely called. Next year we’re on for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Today, in a nice juxtaposition of events, we sang at church “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee,” the most famous segment of that choral symphony.
            I like the experience of choral singing, which humorist Garrison Keillor has described as “better than sex and almost as good as sweet corn.” I particularly enjoy singing with a group that gathers only once a year. There’s something biblical about it, the way we are strangers who blend for a common cause, the way some of us—especially the students who are high school seniors and headed off to college in the fall—will not be a part of the event next year. I’m an introvert who doesn’t introduce myself readily; I learned Shawna’s name only at the final dress rehearsal, but I shall miss her dead-on alto in my left ear.
            I also like the very group-ness of making music. Writers are solitary people; even if we write in cafes and coffee shops, we are alone in our heads, and we go where the work takes us. In music, the work is already there on the page, and “all” we have to do is figure out how to sing or play the right notes together. Part of my longing for connection is satisfied by this set form. “Here, altos, it’s a diminished third,” our director will say, and although I have only the vaguest notion of what he’s talking about, I can hear the note and try to reproduce it. On the page, in beginning this essay, I have no idea where I’m headed. I’m trying to say something about community, about the mystery of gathering into wholeness, or about harmony perhaps, even though the program included modern French music, which presents an idea about harmony different from the ideas of earler composers.
            I’m happy to have the music in my head now, more or less. I know that the literal vibrations and harmonics somehow help me maintain health. I also know from experience that I will remember these words and melodies, just as I recall songs I sang with my high school choir. They have been woven into my being, and if, decades from now, I have lost most of my senses, I hope to retain that piercing cry of Poulenc’s “miserere nobis”—have mercy on us.
            At our first rehearsal with the orchestra, our director admitted we were “not horrible,” a great reassurance. As we left the stage Saturday night, the orchestra’s conductor was in the wings backstage, assuring us we’d done beautifully, and that he was only sorry we had to wait a whole year before doing it again. Me too.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Forgive Us Our Debts

           In the Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6:9–13, Jesus instructed his followers to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Many of us are familiar with older translations that use the word “transgressions.” When we use the word debts, we’re not talking about financial obligations here.
            Forgive as we have been forgiven. In a parable in Matthew 18:21–35, Jesus uses a story to highlight the need to forgive others, knowing how much we ourselves have been forgiven. Peter asks if he needs to forgive a brother as many as seven times, and Jesus responds with hyperbole: seventy times seven times.
Jesus then tells of a slave who owed his master the king more money than he could ever repay. In a time when a wage earner might amass a talent of money after fifteen years of labor, this man owed 10,000 talents. The king excused the debt, but the man left and demanded that another slave pay a debt of 100 denarii, or 100 days’ wages. He had no pity on the man, and had him tossed into debtor’s prison when he could not pay. The story was reported to the king, who repented of his earlier generosity and had the first slave given over to be tortured.
I’ve been thinking about the need for forgiveness, the way we are to forgive not only others, but also ourselves. Many of us continue to torture ourselves with debts large and small from our past. We don’t feel forgiven, and we don’t feel we deserve forgiveness. We would never treat a friend the way we treat ourselves, never speak to a friend who’d asked forgiveness the way we talk to ourselves in our heads. We forget that God is merciful as well as righteous, that it is God’s gracious perogative to forgive huge debts (or transgressions) that we could never repay.
I had a counselor once tell me I was pulling a very heavy red wagon along behind me, with all the unforgiveness stacked up and weighing it down. Over several months of work together, she helped me unload that wagon and forgive, not only others, but myself.
Fifty is indeed the jubilee year, a time of forgiving debts. But any year in our faith lives can be a jubilee year as we set captives free and release heavy obligations. Even if the captives are ourselves.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Making Plans

“You do not even know what tomorrow will bring,” declared the writer of the New Testament book James. (James 4:14) Jesus expressed the same idea in the Sermon on the Mount, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34)
I’ve had some unusually full days, which isn’t the way I prefer to live. And with our annual concert less than two weeks away, all members of the chorus will be rehearsing three evenings next week, which means more full days. Because of a class I’ll be teaching tomorrow, I’ll miss Wednesday morning eucharist, disrupting my week's routine. 
I love the chapel where we have Wednesday Eucharist; it's proportioned like a jewel, set in the lower level of the church. There’s a stained glass window with a banner in it proclaiming Jesus’ words: Lo I am with you always. It is a place of beauty and quiet, where I can count on a half hour that goes according to plan.
Here’s one of the things I love about the Episcopal church: the liturgy is more or less the same every week; the order of service never varies. No one suddenly gets the urge to mess (much) with what’s worked for centuries. I can count on it, sink my weary soul down into it, step into the rhythm of 1549, the year of the first Book of Common Prayer. All the bustle so unavoidable, all the confusion of life gets bound up in this service that calms my nerves.
Despite having the next few weeks fairly planned out, I don’t know what a day will bring forth. I need to live today fully and well, holding my loved ones—some of whom are struggling—close in my thoughts and prayers while releasing them into God’s care.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The C Word

The real irony in this piece is that I wrote it nearly a year before my surgery for ovarian cancer. All those mental gymnastics were just practice. A further irony: there is a link between ovarian and breast cancer; having one makes you more susceptible to having the other. I never miss my mammograms now.

Between the time I listened to the voice mail from the woman at the mammogram center and the time I actually talked to her on the phone, I had breast cancer. Her message asked me to call her but gave no details. What else could I conclude? Clearly, she didn’t want to tell my answering machine that the spot they thought they’d first seen, the one that had required a second mammogram, really was a spot—and not just a spot, but a symptom of something in Stage IV and metastasized already; they were so sorry and why hadn’t I had regular mammograms?
            That imagined outcome made perfect sense. With every passing year, I am more likely to be among the women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, or something else that will require doctors, hospitals, surgery: in short, all of the things I’ve been assiduously avoiding since my orthopedic released me from his care nearly forty years ago.
            I’d had the mammogram, my first in nine years, only so I could tell that dear subset of friends, The Worriers, that I’d duly had my breast tissue painfully smashed and that there was, as I’d maintained all along, nothing wrong. I like being right, and I like nothing being wrong. But the radiologists wanted a better view of the right breast; there was a spot they simply weren’t sure of. I told only my priest, who was good enough to ask about it a week later. The second set of mammograms was more painful, and the technician didn’t see anything. Two weeks had passed with no report; no news is good news, I’d figured.
            In real or imagined trouble, the mind works quickly. After listening to the ambiguous message, I’d figured out how to keep the cats with me during my slow and painful dying, lamented the moves of several friends who wouldn’t be near to help me, and figured out which new projects I might still accomplish. I considered not paying my taxes. I thought about that lump sum sitting for my retirement, and how many children it could feed, how I needed to make sure that the beneficiary was clearly stated. I thought of one of Garrison Keillor’s monologues in which the woman says to God, “This sort of irony is beneath you.” It was the afternoon before Thanksgiving, a day of beautiful snow and someone else cooking for me.
            I finally talked to the nurse and discovered that to make triple sure the spot was nothing, they wanted yet another look. Beyond cursing both their inefficiency and their thoroughness, there was nothing I could do but schedule the appointment and scream a little.
            As I scanned my life and my choices during those two hours between phone calls, I found I had no regrets. I was most thankful that I had risked my financial soul and quit a real job to be a freelancer. I was thrilled to have a book coming out, even if it might be my only one. I was glad to have worshipped with a few people who were drawn, even on a cold Wednesday morning, by the beauty of liturgy, the need for a bit of bread and wine that anticipated greater feasting tomorrow and hereafter.
            Tuesday night was our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service, which my church hosted. There and at the Wednesday morning Eucharist I heard the Gospel reading for Thanksgiving, from Matthew 6, the Sermon on the Mount, the text clearly fitting for my circumstance. “Take no thought for your life…”

Sunday, April 3, 2011

On Loss

I wrote this piece about six months before my first cancer symptoms, with no idea of the level of loss I'd be facing that year. Some religious traditions suggest taking even a little head cold as an opportunity to "practice dying." This loss felt huge; I didn't have a clue that it was just a practice.

I’d dreamed about a lost friend who’d decided we didn’t have much in common any more and moved on. When I woke, I thought about my mother, gone more than a decade now. Two huge losses. Later I placed a bowl of oatmeal in the microwave. My back was turned when the shelf above the sink began to slide. A bracket collapsed, and soon I was standing in shards of colorful Fiestaware. I began crying at the loss of beauty; my wails brought the cat. I held her close, both for my own comfort and for her safety; she didn’t need pottery chips in her delicate paw pads.
            I collect dishes, so it wasn’t as if there were no more bowls, pitchers, cups, or saucers. Some of the pieces—my grandmother’s cookie jar among them—had survived. I thought of folks in New Orleans and all along the Gulf, still digging out from Hurricanes Rita and Wilma. Sweeping up the pieces, I considered the biblical laments over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at the hands of Babylonians. My loss was comparatively small, but I felt kicked and sad, the way I’ve felt when my home or car have been burglarized.
            The dream, the memory, and the broken dishes of my morning seemed related instances of loss. I thought of the three lost-and-found stories Luke tells in chapter 15. A shepherd finds the one sheep lost out of one hundred; a woman finds the one lost silver coin of ten. A prodigal son “comes to himself” and goes home. With each finding, there is great rejoicing.
            What do we do with irredeemable loss? A few days ago I read an excerpt from the medieval saint Catherine of Siena: “Be happy. Be content—always, everywhere, in all circumstances—because every circumstance is a gift of love for you from the Eternal Father. That’s why God wants us to rejoice in every one of our troubles, and to praise and give glory to His name—yes, in everything—because God loves you with a forever kind of love.”
            I’m not quite there yet. But I’ve realized that loss gives us a chance to consider questions we might not otherwise entertain. I’m not sure, for example, that it’s a coincidence that I just finished reading Affluenza: the All-Consuming Passion. Anyone who has three sets of dishes, plus Depression glass and Fiestaware pieces, cannot claim immunity from this disease. Part of me wants to rush off to one of the nearby antique malls and replace everything I lost this morning. I think that a better idea is to accept the loss and wait awhile before I fill up the missing shelf space. Perhaps the past and our losses can’t be truly replicated except in dreams and stories.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Follow the Leader

Another break from cancer.
This is a piece I wrote several years ago; perhaps because the performance of Verdi's Requiem is only two weeks away, the reference to another choir and composer made me decide to post this.

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” Saint Paul exhorts the people of the church in Corinth. I grew up in a church that favored the King James Version, in a time before the explosion of updated translations and paraphrases in modern lanugage. So what I heard was “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.” It seemed a pretty gutsy claim, even for Paul, who was never presented to me as a particularly modest person. Who among us would dare to invite others to follow us as an example? How could anyone claim to be following Christ, who himself had issued the invitation to follow?
            I got a bit more insight on the idea this week at Messiah rehearsal. For six weeks or so every fall, a group of people comes together at Sulphur Grove United Methodist Church, forming a community chorus. We perform two free concerts the first weekend in December for anyone who wants to come listen. Most of us aren’t professional musicians; only a few have formal training. We’re members of church choirs, or not. We don’t audition; we show up.
            Every section is blessed with a few people who have been professionally trained and know a melisma or an anacrucis when they see one and what to do with it. The rest of us make honest attempts. I’ve been doing this about five years now, and every year I land on a few more right notes.
            All of the altos know who our professional is. We tend to fall to pieces if Carla misses a rehearsal; we were in utter panic last year when she got sick. This week I got to sit next to her. I tell you, I sang better than I am capable of singing. I followed her.
            Throughout Scripture, we are exhorted to follow. We’re sheep, the Bible says, and sheep are better at following than leading. They will evidently follow someone right off a cliff. Find a Paul, someone who is clearly a Christ-follower, whose faith and manner of life is unshakeable. Watch and listen for how they exemplify Christ. Imitate them, as the New Revised Standard has translated it. The Greek word Paul used is mimos. Perhaps you are old enough, as I am, to remember the purple-fingered days of mimeographed copies. Follow the person who seems to you most like Christ; become a mimeographed copy of his or her essence, and so of Christ.