In her poem “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,” Mary Oliver observes that the fox and the snake move silently in the woods. And then she asks why we should be surprised that cancer could silently enter the forest of our bodies. Noiseless and deadly, cancer comes — in my case, stage four lung cancer (and before you ask, no, I’ve never smoked).
Thankfully, my first few rounds of chemo have been effective. At least for now, the disease is contained. I have a long way to go, but at this point in my life, I’ll take any morsel of good news.
One aha along my journey has been the dedication and passion of the medical staff. My experience has been in a large teaching university hospital, so I’ve met many dedicated souls — infusion nurses, doctors, transport and food personnel, lab technicians, LPNs and RNs. One message seems to shine through. This isn’t just a job. They are all deeply committed to their work and my health.
Particularly in the case of RNs and LPNs, I noticed how many are in a second career. In some cases, these health workers left lucrative jobs with sane hours to care for others. In these pandemic days, how we need their kind of dedication. They are the heroes.
In a twist of cancer irony, I was given my diagnosis at the same time my latest Baptist News Global column on pandemic praying was published. In that piece, I encouraged readers to learn to pray lament. Being angry with God is OK; the rage means something valuable is at stake. Little did I know how much I would have to learn to practice what I wrote.
Early one morning a few weeks ago, I lay in bed wrestling with God. How could God let this happen? What about all my plans? Didn’t God care? Finally, I decided God and I were going to have it out. I walked through the darkness of our home to my study. I knelt on my wooden prayer bench, ready for battle with my Deity. This was going to be high drama.
“I knelt on my wooden prayer bench, ready for battle with my Deity. This was going to be high drama.”
Actually … not. Nothing really came of it. Except I was able to dump lots of words and pain and anger. And that was cleansing. Somehow, I don’t think the universe was tipped in any new direction. After reading chapters 38 through 40 of Job, I was pretty sure God did not feel threatened by my tough talk. The outcome? A purging. I went back to bed.
I don’t mean to imply that this was a one-off. Other faith struggles have come and will come. I expect more lovers’ quarrels with my God. But I’m not expecting simple answers. There is a cruciform nature to the Christian journey. Our lives are never all good news (Easter) but must pass through Good Friday. Life is full of contradictions, injustice, unanswered prayer and suffering. The Cross becomes our badge of existence. “I live, therefore I know pain.” Jesus joins us and suffers with us.
Since the day the doctor pronounced the words, “stage four,” I have reread parts of Marva Dawn’s book, Being Well When You Are Ill. As the title implies, she reminds us that we can experience wellness even when we are sick. Wholeness (shalom) is about more than the physical dimension.
One of the get-well cards I received early in my illness included a personal note from the sender. Her words have stuck with me. “May the peace of God swaddle your world.” God’s peace, all-encompassing, wrapped around my frail existence. Perhaps that’s enough.
Doyle Sager serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Mo. He loves the intersection of theology and pastoral practice and enjoys mentoring young leaders. He also works with several movements engaged in advocacy and justice issues.