Saturday, May 31, 2008

Continuing the Journey

I have an RSS feed for CNN health news. There was an article about Arlen Spector's battle with Hodgkin's lymphomona. He talked about how he had worken up with an excruciating headache and then went and played racket ball. Basically, he said you have to ignore your chemo symptoms. Fortunately, the NYTimes today has an article about cancer and attitude that is a bit more forgiving.

Basically chemo stinks. It is just awful. Different people react in different ways. I have five or six really good (read normal) days in each three week cycle. The rest of the time, I'm really, really, tired and nap a lot.

I had likened this to a journey to a new destination. Sometimes on a journey, you get to a place where you just have to slog through. It might be backpacking up the Sierras. There's a 1000 foot climb in front of you, through a pine forest. No spectacular views, just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. Or it's a long drive through the desert, more of the same: sand, sand, sand. That's where I am now.

But along that long slog, you manage to step into a hole and hurt your ankle or you in your tiredness fall. I had some slightly different and unmentionable reactions to the chemo this time. UGH.

But, it will be over. I am almost half way through. Yes!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mystery of hair

Last night, we had family night dinner at church. I debuted my new look: no hair. Several people asked if I was going to get a wig and I said no. Then people talked about what beautiful scarfs there were. I don't understand scarfs and bald women.

Paul says women should cover their hair when they prophesy. (Note, Paul does not say they should not prophesy, only prescribes their dress.) "For this reason a woman should have a symbol of authority over her head, because of the angels." (I Corinthians 5:10). Not that anyone seems to know what the angels have to do with this. (Paul also talks about how shameful it is for a woman to shave her head.)

Muslim women cover their hair as a symbol of their modesty. Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair. In many cultures, covering a woman's hair, particularly after marriage is the norm.

So, what is it about hair, women's hair in particular?

I wonder because I have never understood the scarf thing when chemo makes you bald. I find them silly. They are never (in my experience) very attractive. Rather than helping one overlook the reason for the scarf, they scream: I have cancer! I have cancer! Now, I can understand the desire for bald women to wear wigs; I just don't understand the scarf thing.

I drove a friend to the airport early this morning. She said that being a part of my head shaving on Tuesday evening had been a moving experience for her. I talked a bit about my non understanding of the scarf phenomen. I told her that for some reason, I associate the loss of hair with sexuality. I remember an old WWII movie in which a young woman who has been sleeping with a Nazi has her hair cut off. It is a way of shaming women for sexual sins.

My friend made an interesting comment about women and hair. She pointed out that where, other than the tops of our heads, women have more hair on their private parts. And I said that when we get old, that's where we lose hair, lose sexuality.

I still don't understand scarfs.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Loss and gain

Last night a group of clergywomen and a couple of ringers shaved what remained of my hair. It was really thin. I can't believe how much hair can fall out of a head and still have hair up there. I was tired of getting hair in my food, all over my clothes, in my face, everywhere. Besides, my hair had gotten so thin that all I could do was slick it back. And so, I have stubble (more than I imagined could possibly remain) on my head. I am startled when I look in a mirror. (I have slathered sunscreen over my head.)

On the way home, a friend said her daughter had asked her and her father whether they would rather have Alzheimer's or cancer. For me, that was an easy answer. Cancer. With Alzheimer's you lose yourself. And so my friend asked, don't you lose yourself with cancer? I said that so far the only think I've lost and then I thought about how I wanted to say it. I said that what I had gained was a real sense of my finitude. The real sense that I am human and not immortal. My therapist a long time ago had breast cancer. She was a few years younger than I. When she started seeing folks again, I asked her how she was and she said that the cancer was a gift. Each day is a gift. And it is. Each day is a gift. The leaves are greener, the birds chirpier, the squirrels are cuter.

I have begun sitting on my patio. Last year, I had a small decorative pool put in. The birds and squirrels love it. The birds hop around the edge, finally sitting on the edge and sipping water. Then they find a place to jump in and begin to bathe. The squirrels when they had gorged themselves on whatever they are finding in the garden and when they have finished chasing each other will stop for a sip of water. I journal there, but find that most of the time I watch the animals, the sun reflecting off the pool and then on the the limbs of the crepe myrtle.

This is the week I feel good in the chemo cycle. The conventional wisdom is that you finally feel good and then it is time for another treatment. My second is Friday. My sister is driving here from NC with a car full of treats for me. Since I can't eat cheese or spinach after the chemo for three days, I am thinking of going to the Mexican restaurant for lunch for a spinach quesadilla today.

At some point, I have to write my sermon. Though Matthew's text lends itself to my experience, I think I will probably be focusing on striving for God's realm and use Sara Miles' Take this Bread to talk about what God's realm looks like: everyone, everyone, not just the deserving have bread. (I like her wanting the food pantry to be open to everyone with no IDs, no residence requirements and so forth. Everyone deserves to have food. When I worked for Habitat and folks would talk about ungrateful Habitat homeowners, I would explain that we believe that everyone, everyone deserves a simple, decent place to live. If one is getting simply what one is entitled to, what one deserves, why should that person be grateful? And besides, homeowners work on their houses. We are simply helping them get what they already deserve.)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sermon: It Is Good

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4a
My text this morning comes from Brian McLaren. He recently wrote: “There seem to be three main kinds of religious people in the world. First, there are the fearsome -- those who like to make others afraid. Second, there are the fearless -- those who refuse to be intimidated by the fearsome. Then in the middle are the fearful -- those who are afraid to associate with the fearless because they might incur the ire of the fearsome. He continued to defend Kay Warren, Rick Warren’s wife, who was going to be a speaker at an event with Brian McLaren and some other post evangelicals. I admire Kay Warren. She listened to God’s call to her and has brought the issue of AIDS in Africa to millions of Christians, including her husband, who had ignored the plight of the poor around the world.
I think how McLaren describes religious folks describes people in general. There are those who incite fear in others. We see them in politics, the politics of dirty tactics, the politics of name calling, the politics of racial innuendo, the politics of gender innuendo, the politics of fear of the other, whoever the other might be—someone different from me and maybe you. We see them in religion: those who tell others that if you do not believe exactly what I believe in the way I believe it, you will go to hell and burn in the lake of fire forever.
Scripture tells us over and over and over again “Do not fear.” In this experience of mine, several of you have come to me and said “You will be fine.” Or “miracles do happen.” So I have a question for you: with respect to this congregation, why are some of you afraid? Why do you not trust that God has good in store for us as a congregation? Are you afraid to believe because if this congregation doesn’t survive it means you have trusted in a false God? Because if you trust and nothing happens, or at least the same thing that has happened over the past, what fifteen or twenty years will happen again? That God will desert you? That God may not be here? I know you trust God in your personal lives, but when I listen to some of you, I hear fear for the life of this congregation.
Or do you not trust that God will give you the energy to go to some new place? Look at Abraham and Sarah. They were old, really old. Older than any of you sitting here. And God tells Abraham to leave a comfortable home and move his entire family to a new place and begin an entirely new way of life. Look at Jesus followers at Pentecost when the Spirit blew through the house where they were praying. The Spirit gives us what we need when we follow Jesus. The Spirit gives us all we need.
The scripture read this morning is as much a promise as anything else. There are those who would cast it as scientific history: as fact about how the world was created. To read it as science misses so much of what the text is saying.
The story of creation in Genesis 1 was written by a priest, probably in Babylon sometime in the sixth century before Christ. In all probability it was written during the time of the exile of the Jewish people into the foreign world that was the most important empire in the western world at the time. It is written against the backdrop of Babylonian mythology. In the Babylonian creation story, there are many gods. They war with each other. Finally one Marduk slays the mother of the gods Tiamat, who is also the great sea. He slices her body into two parts: to form the sky and the earth. For the Babylonians, there was no separation between the human and divine. Both were equally caught in chaos. At any time, the world could be plunged again into the chaos which had existed before creation of the earth.
The priest writing in Babylon tells a different story. There is only one God, certainly a surprise to many, including Israelites who were used to there being many gods. The earth is there, waiting for God's work. God begins by creating light and separates the light from the darkness. The God creates sky, a tent to separate the waters that were on the earth from the waters that were beyond the sky. Then God separates again dry land out of the water and on that same day, God creates plants. On the fourth day, God creates the sun and the moon, mirroring the work that God did on the first day. On the fifth day, God creates the sea creatures, mirroring the creation of the sea. And on the sixth day, God creates the animals of the earth, mirroring the creation of the earth itself on the third day. God creates humanity, male and female both at the same time, both equal, both in God’s image. Then God creates a Sabbath for rest.
In contrast to the Babylonian story of creation, this is a story of order, not chaos. God is eternally there to ensure that chaos does not return to the earth. That is half the promise: that chaos will not finally rule the earth. That may be hard to believe in this week. We have seen aid to Burma thwarted by a military junta more intent on feeding the army than on helping its citizens. We watch in helpless horror as experts predict mass starvation that can be easily prevented. We have seen a massive earthquake in China bring death and grief, unimaginable grief to the Chinese parents who have only one child, that child now buried in a schoolhouse, or pulled out by now and buried in the ground. This has been a week in which I have spent four days at the cancer center getting a shot each day to boost my white blood levels. I have met men and women there with stories of disease and fight far greater than mine. On Monday, I met a family, two sisters and two brothers. One of the sisters has a son with leukemia. She had been a bone marrow transplant donor for her son who is still at St. Judes fighting that disease. Her father has been diagnosed with leukemia. Now her sister and brothers were there to see if any of them matched her blood type so that they could donate to her because she has been diagnosed with leukemia. Each day I met someone who had been fighting longer and harder than I and on Thursday I met a man who was celebrating because he has been cured. Alleluia.
This morning’s text was probably written at one of the lowest point in Judah’s history. They had been conquered. God had apparently deserted them. They were living in exile, in a place far from home. And yet, this text, this story of order from chaos, this assurance that creation, the world and all that is in it is good, comes from that time. It is a story of hope in the midst of despair, of God’s control in the midst of chaos, of the triumph of good in a time of evil.
How can we doubt that God intends good for us and more importantly, good from us? Neither Abraham nor Sarah saw God’s promise to them fulfilled. The fulfillment would take generations. The grandchildren of those in exile came home to a destroyed Israel or stayed in Babylon. Neither saw the fruits of the exile in the increase of learning in Judaism, how the experience of exile would lay the foundation for their survival as generation after generation would be removed from their homeland in Palestine. Those in the house at Pentecost would not see how God intended for God’s church to grow and flower and bear fruit. We may not see how our lives bear fruit for God’s realm on earth. I am sure, though, of two things: God intends good for us and the only way we can live into that good is to let go of fear. Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

More than you ever wanted to know about my hair loss

The reason I don't like to sleep with cats is that sometime during the night I wake up and there is cat hair in my eyes, in my nose and in my mouth. Now I'm not sleeping with a cat and there's hair in my eyes, in my nose, and in my mouth. I looked on the sofa before I sat down this morning and there was a huge wad of hair. Ewwwww!

So, I decided, no matter how much was left on my head on Tuesday (and there for all my kevetching is quite a bit still on my head), I'm going to have it shaved off. But, I'm sad. I will be losing my hair. Something else, not quite me will come back. I will be different in a visible way when my hair does return. It has taken me so long to grow into the person I am; I am sad about learning about a new person with different hair. I'm still hoping for thick and curly; with my luck thin and straight. (If so, I may stay bald)

The reason for Tuesday: a group of clergywomen is getting together and it seems like that is a good place for me to lose my hair.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The hairs on your head are numbered. Soon that number will be zero.

Hair is everywhere. In my food. Yuck.

I'm full of wonder. It's as if no one else has ever gone through this. It's all new to me and I'm excited about sharing this. You'd think I'd just discovered sex.


Yesterday's Friday Five was about travel. And those who know me know that I love to travel. The furtherest away, the most obscure, the most difficult places to visit are my favorites (when I have time, I'll tell you about my adventures in the Rio Coco, on the eastern side of Nicaragua, on the Honduran border during the Contra era).

Sometime in the last day or so, it occurred to me that I am on another journey, a trip of wonderous proportions. It is not simply what I am choosing to do to my body (out of fear, I suppose. I don't have to do this. I am doing it to lessen the risk of a recurrence. I'd rather do this now than face the higher possiblity of more cancer later. And given that this particular kind of cancer is so hard to find, to screen for, I think I'm opting for safety.)

And so, I am losing my hair. What they don't tell you is that your scalp hurts in the process. That's how I first knew I must be about to lose my hair. My scalp burned like the time I managed to get it sunburned in New Zealand. (The hole in the ozone layer is true.)

And so, I never know how I will feel. I keep hoping I will feel good, but it doesn't seem to happen. Yesterday I climbed a flight of stairs and was exhausted. The woman who a year ago was jogging for an hour (and couldn't understand why I wasn't getting faster).

And I meet incredible people. People who have been battling cancer for years and who are grateful to be alive. People who have chemo month after month, year after year. Nurses and lab technicians who do nothing but minister to people with cancer.

But, this is all new to me. It is like entering a new country with strange customs, strange food, strange tastes, strange sights. And it will (God willing) be a short trip. By the middle of July, it will be over and I will be off to South Korea and Mongolia. To a real adventure. Without my hair, of course.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday Five

From RevGalBlogPals

1) Favorite Destination -- someplace you've visited once or often and would gladly go again
Oh, so many. Right now, I think India. I'd like to spend a month there, wandering around, getting to places I didn't get to in my (all too short) first visit: Varanasi, Dharmaslala, Goa, Kerala. I think India is the most spiritual place I've visited. And beautiful. And of course, the Taj Mahal. I was afraid I would be disappointed because my expectations were so high, but it exceeded my highest expectations.
2) Unfavorite Destination -- someplace you wish you had never been (and why)
I can't think of one.
3) Fantasy Destination -- someplace to visit if cost and/or time did not matter
The Maldives. A fantastically expensive place to visit. Hotels run about $500 a night. Yep, a night. The Maldives average about three feet (or less) above sea level. It is hard to get to, but the scuba diving is fantastic.

A second dream: The Silk Road. I'd like to travel from Venice to Istanbul to Damascus through Iran and Uzbekistan and on through China to Suzhou. I've done two parts of the road: Suzhou and Xian: the eastern terminus and I've done parts of the road (it isn't just one road, but a series of interlacing routes) in Central Asia in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. I'm hoping to do western China next year. I'd love to do the entire "road" in one trip.

The Moon

An Episcopalian priest from Memphis is traveling though Nepal and India (she had planned on Tibet, but that was cancelled). She hiked the Anapurna circuit (a fairly hike around the bases of some of the world's highest mountains) and then almost to the Everest base camp. Her blog is at (I hope I got that right. It is a frustration to me that blogspots can't just automatically convert a webaddress to a link as other websites seem to be able to happily do. For some reason I can't get it to work for me, even though I check and check to make sure I've put things in right.)

4) Fictional Destination -- someplace from a book or movie or other art or media form you would love to visit, although it exists only in imagination
5) Funny Destination -- the funniest place name you've ever visited or want to visit
Not a destination, but a trip: Katmadu to Timbutu.

I have been struggling for many years with why I have this need to travel and see the world. The biggest disappointment with my cancer is that I had planned to take a year and travel around the world when I retire. I was planning to sell most of my stuff, put the rest in storage and go. But, because I need frequent checkups, it will be five years before (God willing) I would be able to leave for more than six months. And so, I've been dreaming other dreams: volunteering with the Iona Community for several weeks; teaching English in China for the Amity Foundation; perhaps teaching English in Africa or South America.

On the other hand, if this is the biggest disappointment with my cancer, how wonderful and fortunate am I!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mothers' Day

Missing from my congregation yesterday: three mothers whose children died in adulthood; two women who never had children. Is this a coincidence?

I never do a Mothers' Day sermon. And it was Pentecost.

I told the Minister of Music that I didn't do Mothers' Day and the reasons. So, she does a sappy anthem about mothers. Ugh. She doesn't have time to meet with me. (And besides, I'm not doing much other than putting together a liturgy and sermon each week.)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Entering a new land

I woke up this morning to a beautiful bright blue sky. After I struggled to get my trash and recycling outside (five trips and I was exhausted), I went back to bed.

It occurred to me that I have entered a new land; I have a new baptism. I am no longer a part of the world that was once mine. I am no long invincible; I am no longer immortal. I am no longer so strong that I can do anything I set out to do. I am human, finite, limited, mortal.

Instead of sadness, there is sweetness. The blue sky is somehow bluer, the birds are somehow more melodic, the grass is somehow greener, the azaleas pinker. It is a gift, this life on the otherside.

I have heard folks who have battled cancer, who have come back from the brink of death say that life changes for them. I have listened to their descriptions and have wondered and been, I must admit, a bit jealous. I have tried to live in the present, but often it is in the past or future. For right now, this minute, though I am in the present.

I imagine this newness will become old; that I will get used to life again; that I will find myself not in the present but in the past or future. But for right now, I have been given a gift.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Thoughts about intentionally poisoning your body

First day post first chemo. I feel pretty good despite the fact that I have put some pretty strong poisons in my body. I wonder if a couple of hundred years from now people will look back on cancer treatment and say "What were they thinking?" the way we do now when we hear about leaching and bleeding patients to get rid of the bad humours.

We went to quarterly session meetings this year. What a blessing. We have had a number of action items that needed to be decided between session meetings and we met for about half an hour after worship. Now, there is no pressing business to discuss at out next meeting which is Tuesday evening. I am looking forward to an unrushed discussion of where the church is. There haven't been any new members in about 10 years. Older members are not dying off; they are a hardy bunch despite having lived through more tragedy than I can imagine. So many have lost adult children or have battled devestating diseases or in a couple of cases, both. We have a few recovering alcoholics. Last year (my first full year at the church) we planned and developed a vision statement. Amazingly without my presence they have followed through on the piece that most excited them. But, the first step is done and we need to talk about the next step. In addition, I am designated and my contract is done in September of next year. When I first came, I assumed that if all worked out, they would call me and I would stay 5-7 years. Right now, I want to retire, but the earliest I can is in 22months--six months beyond the end of my contract. Of course, I (or probably God) may change my mind.

A few people in the congregation are enthusiastic about outreach. Most are content to come to church, to minister to the older members or be ministered to. The latter spells death. They refuse to consider that death may be iminent or is an option (something I can certainly sympathize with, having been through a long denial of death and then a denial of my diagnosis). There are plans for a new housing/commercial development two blocks away which might bring new life (the land has not yet been cleared; completion is about two years away). Unfortunately, directly across the street is an 1100 member Methodist church. And our folks don't like to do calls. Another new apartment building is going up about four blocks away.

No one seems interested in any sort of small group. There is a Sunday School class attended by the over 75 bunch, primarily. In the summer a smaller group gets together for a walk around the neighborhood and then breakfast and discussion of a book (last year's was a book by Joyce Meyer--not my choice).

In February, I became really sick. I was in bed most days 14-16 hours, mainly sleeping. I went from doctor to doctor looking for a diagnosis. I must have seen my primary care physician every other week. It was my thyroid everyone seemed to think. I was still concerned because I was afraid it was something more serious than low thyroid. I thought I might have chronic fatigue or some other autoimmune disease that many people dismiss as in your head. (I suppose the good news about cancer is that it isn't something people expect you to just get up from and go to work everyday--except maybe my clerk of session, but that's another story and that's an overblown statement) When finally, finally someone took my huge 7 month pregnant belly seriously and did a cat scan and got started on the right road, I was relieved. But, I was in denial that it was cancer even though my surgeon had told me. The pathology report was missing a page and I was told just to wait until I saw my surgeon for follow up. Then when I finally got a hold of the path report myself and saw what it was; I was either in shock or denial.

Stage 1, grade2 ovarian cancer is a very good diagnosis, especially for ovarian cancer where most is caught at stage 3 or higher (which is why the mortality rate for it is so high). I elected to take chemo even though the life expectancy for this stage is the same with or without chemo. The difference is that with chemo, the chance of recurrence is less. Now, this is my personality: I am going to make a quick decision and go with the most aggressive treatment.

But what if it had been stage 4 and I were 90 years old? Would I have chosen a year of life or the possibility of a bit longer life and the agony of extended chemo (I'm only doing 4 to 6 courses). Many older people would choose no chemo.

I think this congregation is more like the latter situation. They are old and have lived long lives and have come though much pain. They don't have the energy to fight death. Death is imminent. But they don't have a diagnosis that they believe. They believe that they will continue as a congegation. And they have heard imminent death before: for at least the last ten years, if not longer.

Circumstances have not been good to them. After a long term minister left, they called a pastor with severe mental health issues (as I understand it). The presbytery where he was, was glad to get rid of him. The congregation wound up giving him a substantial package to leave after about 6 months. Then they called an interim, who teaches Presbyterian polity. The congregation really liked her and she told them that they could call her as an installed pastor. (This is a blatant violation of our polity; there is simply no way to get around the prohibition on calling an interim as installed pastor.) This caused folks to be angry at the presbytery (rather than the lying pastor, pardon my anger at her--she knew better and damaged the church if not consciously and intentionally, then with blatant disregard for the consequences) and many left the church. They then called a woman who stayed for seven years. Unfortunately she was battling many personal problems at the end, including a divorce and depression. At the time the health benefit plan did not cover depression treatment very well and she could not afford to get the help she needed. Her leaving caused disruption. Because they had had such a bad experience with having an interim, they wanted a designated pastor that they could call as installed if it worked out.

I am feeling guilty about wanting to leave at the end of my contract. I think they need a stable pastor for at least 5 years. But, I am losing energy for being a pastor. Of course, this could be merely where I am health wise. I just don't see the energy there for them to die. Is it better to let them die a slow death, gradually and naturally or should I lead them to see that death is inevitable and help them choose a way to die: merge with another church, build a senior living facility on the property (with space for our preschool, after school programs for the community, a way for the residents to interact with the children who come there), or just close the doors. I really like the senior living facility, but it will take lots of leadership and time.

Pray with me.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Friday Five

From Sally at RevGalBlogPals

Prayer is a joy to some of us, and a chore to others, waiting likewise can be filled with anticipation or anxiety....

So how do you wait and pray?

1. How do you pray best, alone or with others?

Being an introvert, I pray best alone. I have been doing centering prayer for 25 years, on and off. It is such a calming thing for me. And I do hear things I'd never hear if I were noisy. Centering prayer in a group is interesting, but for me, for the times I've experienced, not really different.

2. Do you enjoy the discipline of waiting, is it a time of anticipation or anxiety?

Waiting, me wait? I don't wait. When I have to wait, it seems to be neither a time of anticipation or anxiety. I'm just impatient. Not anxious. Just want it done. Just about the only time I am anxious is the night before I travel. As much as I do travel, the anxiety is a mystery to me. Centering prayer.

I was anxious last night, I think; I'm not sure. I had a hard time sleeping. It may have been excitement. My first chemo today.

3. Is there a time when you have waited upon God for a specific promise?

I can't think of any. I have asked for signs. I have received signs. I'm more a rear view window person. I see how things have been looking at them after they have happened. I don't tend to see things as they happen. (I think this is related to the question; maybe not.)

4. Do you prefer stillness or action?

Obvious. Except, I do enjoy sitting and journaling and centering prayer. I want to do! I want to sit in silence! Perhaps that's why I find walking a labrinyth (so, I need to learn to spell) so wonderful. Stillness in action!

5. If ( and this is slightly tongue in cheek) you were promised one gift spiritual or otherwise what would you choose to recieve?

World peace and thin thighs!

The ability to see the realm of God embodied here and the gift of leading others to experience the realm here and now. I see, from time to time glimpses of God's realm here as my favorite priest said, "it's as if the veil is lifted and you see a glimpse of the kingdom as it is supposed to be here."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Health Update

Well, I visited my oncologist today. I have stage 1, class 2 ovarian cancer (or had?). According to my oncologist, my life expectancy is the same as if I hadn't had cancer. I opted for chemo, to lessen the possibility of a recurrence. I'll do two rounds, then take some time off (go to Mongolia) and then take two to four more rounds.

I am out of denial/shock, I think. I'm not sure where I am.

What is interesting is that I am going to preach on biblical interpretation on Sunday, my first Sunday preaching since my surgery. That's what keeps coming to me to preach on. I'm not sure why. Unless I can find an old sermon I feel like preaching. I keep hoping that inspiration to preach something inspirational will come to me, but it hasn't yet. (Those tend to come around 3 am on Sunday morning.)