Monday, September 12, 2011

In the Shadow of Your Wings

 Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful, for I have taken refuge in you; in the shadow of your wings will I take refuge until this time of trouble has gone by.
Psalm 57:1 Book of Common Prayer

Shadow has so many meanings. We don’t want one to show up on a CATscan. We may fear the shadow of death. We don’t want cancer to follow us as a shadow.
And yet, during chemo—and for the fair-skinned among us, all the time—we seek the shadow of a tree. We’re the ones always asking friends if we could move into the shade. Shadow isn’t always a negative concept. In this verse, we take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings.
I had a professor once who suggested that if we call Jesus the Lamb of God, we could also address him as Hen of My Heart. She was referring to the passage in the gospels where Jesus anguishes over Jerusalem, saying he wanted to gather her inhabitants the way a hen shelters her brood (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). Jesus wants us to be sheltered and safe, even during cancer.
This month is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. You won’t see the marketplace flooded with teal, or newspapers printed on teal paper. Ovarian cancer is deadlier than breast cancer, but it doesn’t claim as many women. We don’t have Susan G. Komen’s foundation. Ovarian cancer is different than breast cancer—there’s no screening test (though they’re working on it) and no self-exams. It often hides among all the folds of a woman’s body until Stage III or IV, when it is harder to defeat. The symptoms sound like any number of things, including aging: bloating, pelvic discomfort, digestive troubles, frequent urination. Detecting ovarian cancer, the Great Mimic, often requires multiple false starts—no, it’s not a UTI, or a gall bladder issue, or menopause.
Yesterday we had our annual walk; my only contribution for several years now has been merely to show up. In some ways, it’s hard even to do that. We talk of those women we’ve loved and lost, who should still be among us; we monitor each other’s progress, which is not always towards health. We move away from the afternoon sun to sit in the shelter house.
I asked a friend how she was. “Okay, I think,” she said. “But you never know.” She expressed what we all feel. Cancer is insidious; both of us could face recurrences at our next check-ups, even though we felt and looked fine yesterday. During the progress of our disease, we will always need shelter under the wings of God, a safe, dry place to rest.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Sin and Illness

I said, “Lord be merciful to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.”
Psalm 41:4 Book of Common Prayer

            Since at least biblical times, it’s been tempting to link misfortune and sin. When Job’s friends came to comfort him, they offered the standard wisdom of the day—confess what you have done to deserve this, and be healed. When Job maintained that he was innocent, his friends didn’t believe him. Confronted with a blind man, Jesus’s own disciples asked who had sinned, the man or his parents, that he should have been born blind. (This has always struck me as illogical—how much sin can an unborn baby commit in utero to “deserve” a disease or deformity?)
            In our own time, Rabbi Kushner struck a nerve with the publication of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. We somehow can’t believe that good people get misfortunes they “don’t deserve.” I have a friend whose first response on learning she had cancer was, What did I do wrong?
            When cancer strikes us or someone we love, it may be tempting to look for a direct cause. I struggled with this when my mother’s cancer was discovered. It was hard for me not to blame her for the decades of smoking, to instead consider environmental factors such as working with lead paint or airplane glue as a younger woman, or biological factors such as her father’s death of cancer. When we are in pain, we want someone or something to serve as a blameworthy target.
Jesus told his disciples that no one had sinned to cause the man’s blindness, but that his affliction would be an occasion for the works of God to be manifest. And then he opened the man’s eyes. For some of us, healing will be elusive until the final healing that we call death. But even in the midst of sickness, we can look for ways to show forth God’s work. I’m grateful, in this month that my ovarian cancer is highlighted for awareness, for my doctor and nurses, for the drugs that have kept the cells from mutating again so far, and for all the kindness others have shown to me. My two cancers are not a punishment from God, but a new way to see God’s hand at work through others.