Five years and eight months ago, in January of 2014, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow I’ve nicknamed “Frank.” Off and on since then—intensely in the first 27 months and consistently over the last 9 months—I’ve received various forms of treatment for this currently incurable but mostly manageable illness: oral and infused chemotherapies (including high-dose melphalan, accompanied by a stem-cell transplant), steroids, and regular infusions of a monoclonal antibody. My oncologists have told me to anticipate that I’ll be in treatment of one kind or another until the time when treatment is no longer effective.
About a year after diagnosis, I left the pastorate of First Baptist Church of Asheville. This past May, I took “early retirement” from my work as a teacher in the religion and philosophy of Mars Hill University. The effects of illness and the side-effects of treatment were central to my decisions to leave both positions. I knew I couldn’t carry-out either role in the ways which I thought each deserved.
Many people who read this blog have walked this journey with me, and you’ve listened graciously as I’ve described its challenges: physically diminishing, emotionally demanding, and spiritually refining. I’ve experienced pain, fatigue, chemo-brain, nausea, unsteadiness, anxiety, depression, loss grief, and loneliness. I’ve had questions which, as I asked them, I knew had no satisfying answers. I’ve been very near to death twice, and I’ve had days so bewildering that death would have been a relief.
I’ve become more aware that life is sheer gift and that dependency and vulnerability are simply other ways of saying human.
To echo what I’ve heard others say: I’m certain about fewer things, but more certain about those few, especially that, in and with Jesus, “there is no condemnation” and “nothing shall separate us from the love of God.”
Short phrases and long silences are the substance of my prayers:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
“My life is your gift. You give me everything I need to live the life you call me to live. Save me from taking-in and taking-on what I do not need and what does not satisfy.”
“You are here. I am here. We are one.”
“I trust; heal my lack of trust.”
About the healing of trust: cancer, treatment, undeniable neediness, and my growing awareness of what I’ve done, what I’ve left undone, and what I’m likely never to experience have caused me to be “born again again” in a surprising way. I now have another childlike opportunity to navigate life’s “first”—primary—developmental task: to affirm trust rather than to be overwhelmed by mistrust.
For most of my life, nothing has been harder for me than to say “yes” to the inviting demand and demanding invitation to risk trust and to trust enough to risk. Astonishingly, in the brokenness of these years of illness, trust is being restored and it is being created in places where it hasn’t existed before.
I’m hearing the good news “again for the first time”:
“You are a child of God and God takes great delight in you.”
“I will not leave you as an orphan; I will come to you.”
“Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
“Come to me weary and burdened one, and I will give you rest.”
“Love God with all you are, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Seek first the will and way—the order and community—of God.”
I’m even more convinced than I’ve ever been that knowing and being known, accepting and being accepted, loving and being loved, laughter and tears, silence and song, and ordinary-extraordinary things are what make life worth living.
Five years ago yesterday (August 12, 2014), I came home to the mountains from Duke where I’d been for about three weeks, undergoing the high-dose chemo and stem-cell transplant and recovery. I couldn’t have envisioned when the sun came up the next day what the years ahead would hold. I’ve witnessed the truth of “God works in all things for good,” even in the things that aren’t good.
I woke up this morning with a feeling similar to the one I five years ago: uncertainty, anticipation, and gratitude. What I mostly have to offer now are words, written and spoken. I want them to heal and bless, gladden and encourage, clarify and reconcile.
Some of what I will write and say will be influenced, inevitably, by “Frank”; there won’t be a time when he isn’t one of my teachers. There are, however, other voices with wisdom to offer, experiences other than illness to explore, and concerns other than my own health to claim my energy.
I know that this way of putting it will sound very pious, and I am not all that pious, but I’d rather talk about Jesus than Frank. Frank, after all, is trying to kill me.
I want my words to be Jesus’ kinds of words, words of justice, mercy, and peace, of grace, tenderness, and beauty, and of truth, goodness, and hope.