Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Year

Yesterday I read a blog by a cancer whatever (I have trouble with victim, sufferer, survivor) who spelled out what she had gained from having cancer. All in all, I'd much rather have my year back, my hair back (I have hair but it is curly, steely gray resembling a brillo pad; I'm waiting for it to get long enough to visit the hairdresser and get it fixed in some way), my toes back (I have neuropathy in both feet which causes numbness and sometimes cramps), my stomach back (I'm still recovering from hernia repair surgery), my ability to heal back (I have a skinned knee not yet healed from a fall I took Sept 12). I haven't sensed much upside from this disease. Of course, I just may not be spiritually advanced enough to see God in the suffering. Or I may just be a whiner. Oh, and though I am old enough to be covered through our health insurance until I reach medicare age even though I lose my job in the meantime, I worry about others not so lucky: those who are tied to a job for the health insurance and those who do not have health insurance.

I am just as happy to have this year over. Good things did happen this year. In January, I ventured to Uganda and Rwanda to visit with my cousins, the gorillas. Uganda is a beautiful land and seems fairly well off (for Africa). It managed not to suffer so much from colonialism and seems to have recovered from Idi Amin. Rwanda, on the other hand. . . But the gorillas were magnificent. On my first trek, we arrived at the place where the trackers said our group was near. As we set our gear down, a silverback came out to greet us. He ran not six feet from me. We got very close to the family, including a small baby. It was a wonderful experience. In July, after completing four rounds of chemo, I was off to Mongolia to experience a total eclipse of the sun. This is probably the most spiritual experience of my life. (My favorite so far must be 2006 in Libya). The day finally arrives. You wait in camp, chatting, setting up equipment perhaps (because this one was to be short, we had decided just to enjoy). First contact begins. After some excitement, you settle down for a wait of probably 45 minutes. You play around with the partial, looking at shadows that are little half moons, notice that the light is polarized: in one direction the shadows are sharp; in the other blurred. Then second contact approaches. The sun remains a thin sliver. You watch for the sun's shadow racing across the ground. The west is dark, like a thunder storm approaching, but there are no clouds in the sky. The temperature is dropping. You return to your watch at the sun. Then, you can see Bailey's beads: the sun light shining through the valleys of the moon making what appears to be small beads. Then the diamond ring: that brief amazingly bright spot of light. The diamond ring fades and a moment later the corona springs forth. You rip off your protective glasses (if you haven't for the diamond ring). A shout goes up from the crowd. You can see red flares in the corona. You look around at the stars. It is like twilight, except the light rings the horizon instead of being confined to the west. How much longer? Only a few seconds. Third contact: the diamond ring appears and then Bailey's beads. And then it is over. You talk to folks, particularly those who have never seen an eclipse before. Yes, it was all they had hoped for. An amazing sight.

At church, I have either resigned myself to looking for where God may be acting and holding that up to the congregation for them to see or given up. They are not willing to make the changes that need to be made to reach out to those who are different from themselves. They want to be left alone to die. I don't have the energy to lead them in a different direction. Perhaps that's the gift of the cancer: not enough energy to be frustrated by their self centeredness. My contract is up in September. I don't have the energy to look for a new call. And, by and large, as someone once told me all you do when you find a new call is exchange one group of dysfunctional people for another. (My cynicism is showing.)

My oncologist doesn't think the cancer will return, but I still struggle with the left overs from chemo. I'll probably always have the neuropathy in my feet. It's not bad, but it is there. I hope my abdomen will recover from the hernia repair.

The world eats at my heart: killing in Gaza, Darfur, hunger increasing in Africa. In what once was the wealthiest country in the world thousands are out of work, more hungry and homeless, retirement looks bleaker for many. Health care is not what it should be.

The sun shines. The birds still sing. The squirrels frolick. People care for one another.

People are like leaves of grass they wither and die.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I am sick over what is happening in Gaza. And if you criticize Israel, you are antiSemitic. When I was in Jerusalem eight years ago (I spent New Year's Eve in Israel), there was a tour guide who began talking about the "dirty" Arabs. His words reminded me of similar words I had heard about Jews. I didn't mention that to him, though. I am always amazed that a people who have been so discriminated against, so persecuted, so victimized can turn around and do the same thing to another group of people. My heart breaks for Israel.

It was, of course, western European and US powers that set up the situation. We simply pushed our problem onto the Palestinians. Add a bit of religion and you get a powder keg.

And I weep for the poor here in our country. I weep for heartless people. I weep for all of us who choose our own comfort over justice. I include myself in that category. My guilt doesn't seem to do much to impell me to better action.

I am going on vacation on Friday. I'm off to Bonaire to scuba dive and forget about the world's problems. I'll take in the beauty of God's world. I am always amazed at the beauty in the reef, a beauty that was invisible to people until only a few decades ago. And it is a beauty we are ruining with development and global climate changes. So, perhaps I won't forget about the world's problems.

What one small change can I make today? And then another one tomorrow?

I am as guilty as any in not wanting to give up to make this a better world.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


RevGalBlogPals today asks about tradition and the unwillingness to allow folks to change or let go. As I responded, it occurred to me that the inability to let go of tradition is a sign of death. When we are young and looking toward the future, we readily let go of traditions and forge our own new traditions. In fact, the young may worry older folks with their disdain for tradition. But as we face death, we hold tighter to our traditions because they represent life to us. I think this is true of organizations as well as individuals. We individuals and institutions become ossified and less flexible as we age. Organizations can live only if they return to their earlier flexibility.

"The War on Christmas" has fascinated me. For reasons that escape me the use of the phrase "Happy Holidays" has become the focal point of all that is wrong (according to some) with society. I walked out of Kroger a couple of weeks ago behind some teenagers (who are not immune from ossification of just not thinking just because they are young, my prior statement to the contrary notwithstanding). The young man was railing against the clerk who had wished him "happy holidays". I wanted to catch up with him and wish him "happy Hanukkah", but didn't. The congregation I pastor is unwilling to let go.They are too small to do what they have done before, but can't let go. Perhaps letting go is a sign to them of their death. I realize that is a contradiction, but life is paradox.

The particular circumstance cited in the RevGalBlogPals entry was a church that decided (I think) not to put up two tired artificial trees. And that generated criticism from the community. So, why do people feel free to criticize others for letting go of traditions? How does that impact them? And why this need to hang on to what are, at base, pagan traditions. A Christmas tree has nothing to do with the Christmas story. It is a pagan custom. As are our lights at the soltice. What matters is our hearts and our hopefulness in the face of God's unexpectedness.

Our God is a God who does the unexpected, the unimaginable. Our God does not seem to be bound by tradition, or by human ideas of who God is, what God should be doing. Why do we feel the need to be so bound?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Thoughts on Cancer, people with cancer, people without cancer

There is an ovarian cancer website I visit from time to time. A woman posted a question about a Breuss (I think) fasting diet as a cure for cancer. Hadn't heard of it, so I googled. It's a seven week (yes, 49 days) of nothing but vegetable juice (beet and other strange roots) and strange teas. The theory is that cancer needs protein to grow and so if you don't ingest any protein you'll kill the cancer. Whether or not you will survive in the meantime is open to question. A woman responded that the original poster should not get taken in by quacks and then someone else posted that the second poster should not have posted what she did; it might work. Then the NYTimes had a blog post on lean muscle mass and cancer survival rates. Evidently there appears to be a correlation between the percentage of muscle mass and cancer survival, even among obese patients. That linked to an earlier blog article on cancer. The comments were bizarre.

I've decided that there must be more crazy cancer patients than in the normal population. Do you suppose cancer makes you crazy? I can see where it would. You're young and you've been handed a death sentence when you never imagined you'd have cancer.

I don't think medicine has all the answers. I imagine that there are things that might work. (Interestingly, when I was in Alaska, an Inuit said that he had cured his cancer by taking one of the folk remedies. He said that his tribe had found it by following snails. The snails had signs that they were dying but when they ate leaves from this particular tree, they lived. I had just finished my chemo which was partially taxol made from the Pacific Yew. I have no idea if it is the same tree but it is an interesting intersection of legend and fact or fact and fact.) But I also know that cancer goes into remission for no known reason; that it fails to respond to cures.

The idea that exercise (which would lead to increased muscle mass) would increase survival rates drew interesting comments including the idea that the suggestion that cancer patients should exercise was a form of blaming the victim. What the statistics evidently showed is that if cancer patients had exercised before they had cancer they would exercise afterward; if not, then they would not. Cancer doesn't change lifestyle. (Except in prostate cancer patients for some reason.) I wonder whether heart attacks and strokes change lifestyle. I don't remember ever seeing any studies on that.

On the other hand, I wanted to slug one senator with cancer who said he played racquetball (or something similar) everyday, including the days he had chemo. The message seemed to be anyone can do that. Unfortunately people are different; chemos are different; people react to them differently. It's a strange world I now live in. A year ago, I would never have imagined I would be writing about cancer from the perspective of a person who had cancer. (If you read the tortured prose here, you will note that I am having difficulty deciding what to call a person with cancer. I don't like survivor; I don't like victim; I can't find a word I like. I don't have cancer now, to the best of anyone's knowledge, but I might. There could be those cells lurking in my body waiting for a chance to spread and grow. Of course, those cells could be in anyone's body waiting for a chance to spread and grow. I could go on with this, but you get the idea.)

The final irony is that I have been musing on death for a long time. One thing I read characterized cancer cells as eternally young. They don't "grow up" and behave like other cells. What an irony: cells with the possibility of eternal life kill you. The most bizarre form of you have to be careful what you wish for.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Blogger Envy

I read other people's blogs and I marvel at their insight, their depth. I just whine.


A parishioner died yesterday. She had wanted to; she didn't want to be in a nursing home waiting for death, with no hope for change, no hope for health. A parishioner's sister in law died this week, she was 40, had battled cancer all her life. A parishioner's mother died two weeks ago. It's a long, dark Advent.

I am feeling old. I am glimpsing what old age may be like. I am tired almost all the time. I have awful pain from time to time. I can't tell if it's lessening or not.

I love traveling the world. I love visiting other cultures. On my trip to Mongolia, I had the sense I was a tourist, not a traveler. It was much like watching it on TV, not being in the country. It was because, I think, I was on a tour and interacted more with other Americans on the tour rather than interacting with Mongolians.

To some extent, my journey with cancer has been like the trip to Mongolia. I haven't really experienced it. I don't know whether it is denial or something else. The fact that my prognosis is quite good and I don't face never ending treatment may be a part of it. I feel as if there is some great truth, some great shift in my life that should come from the cancer. It hasn't happened yet.

The current journey, the one through death, doesn't feel like a TV journey. The parishioner was a woman I loved, I enjoyed being with. I will miss her. I am beginning to see death more clearly. It is final. It is permanent. It is unavoidable. It is. Perhaps I feel this more keenly because of my experience with cancer (I am not immune; I am not immortal; I am finite; I am fragile), but I'm not sure. I realize this sounds like a contradiction from the previous paragraph but it feels true to me.

It is sunny and cold today. I love the sun, on this the day of the year with the least sun. The sun returns. Life goes on; not on an individual level, but life continues. It is good.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Five

From Songbird at RevGalBlogPals

There are only five full days before Christmas Day, and whether you use them for shopping, wrapping, preaching, worshiping, singing or traveling or even wishing the whole darn thing were over last Tuesday, there's a good chance they will be busy ones.

So let's make this easy, if we can: tell us five things you need to accomplish before Christmas Eve.

1. Quit crying. Or maybe continue crying. A parishioner will in all probability die between now and Christmas. I cried with a son and daughter yesterday. She is making an intentional choice to die, or at least not to continue to linger and if she gets better then spend the rest of her life waiting to die in a nursing home.

2. Quit resenting the fact that I never have Christmas. I preach, like most solo pastors Sunday, Christmas Eve and the following Christmas. People keep asking if family is coming to be with me. I wouldn't have enough time to enjoy them if they came. I don't know how solo pastors with children still at home or in college manage this time of the year.

3. Start exercising every day. I was in a fair amount of pain this morning. I did Pilates yesterday and then walked for half an hour. Pain is tiring. But if I don't get back to walking, I'll look like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, right down to the nakedness, cause I AM NOT GOING TO BUY BIGGER CLOTHES despite the fact that I have three outfits I can wear right now. Not having anything to do with Christmas.

4. Write my Christmas Eve sermon. 'Nuff said.

5. Email my sis explaining that I haven't managed to get her Christmas present, even though I have sent her husband his favorite Christmas gift. Find a gift for a friend who unexpectedly gave me a regifted item for Christmas.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


So, my parishioner who wants to die is now off medication. She is drinking Ensure, but not much else. She wanted to see me today, so off I went. I spent some time with her and then talked to her son for a while. We're going to do a Memorial Service MLK weekend (unless she goes before I leave for my vacation). I'll do the graveside if I'm here; if not someone else will. When I left her room, her daughter and son were sitting in the hallway and I sat with them for a while. And cried. I'll be out there tomorrow and then every day or so until the time comes.

I don't like death.

In other news, I have got to diet. I can't find a pair of wool slacks that I can wear. I am not going to buy bigger clothes. I did go to Pilates today and I got out and walked. I'm dog sitting (actually the dog is visiting me) for the next 12 days, so I'll get out twice a day to walk him. I walked him more this afternoon than he is used to and he had collapsed on the floor. I'm trying to eat more healthily: fewer carbs, no sweets (well not very often), no white flour. No fun. I am saute-ing six chicken breasts. I'm used to tiny chicken breasts and these are huge. They are about twice what i'm used too. I'll freeze them and then I can put them on a salad. I've got a ton of spinach, am getting used to eating that for salads. I also bought 6 ounces of coho salmon which I had them cut into two filets. I'm trying to focus on what I can eat, not what I can't.

And I have to find a present for my sister and for my friend for whom I'm dogsitting. Do you know a week from today is Christmas?????

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Very Good Day

Gannet Girl and I had coffee this morning. It was fun meeting her. We have a lot in common: she's in the Presbytery I was active in before I went to seminary and we did CPE at the same hospital. And we both wear incredibly boring shoes in the winter time.

And I saw my oncologist today. She said she didn't think the cancer would return. It was caught really early and then I did chemo. I asked about staging and she said that they really hadn't done a proper staging. The surgeon didn't remove my appendix or lymph nodes, so it wasn't possible to tell if the cancer had spread there. She told me that my hernia repair will take much longer to heal than I had thought and that the inside heals much more slowly than the outside. She did think I was healing nicely, though. So, I'm relieved and happy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins

I visited a parishioner this morning. She told me that she is ready; that she is tired; that she doesn't want to spend the rest of her life in the hospital. I cried and we prayed that God would do what was right. (I asked if the mother had talked with her children about this and she said no). Then I went to a funeral for a parishioner's mother. Then I came home and the volunteer receptionist at the church called to say that the first parishioner's daughter called and said that her mother "had given up" and would I talk with her. I wasn't sure whether the mother or the daughter. I have left a message for the daughter to call me. I don't know the daughter. I don't know whether it is appropriate for the mother to give up. I don't know what her prognosis is; whether they will get the medicine right.

I am supposed to be packing to go to Cleveland tomorrow to see my oncologist. It is raining and raining and raining. It is dark and dreary.

I read a quote on Sunday to the effect that the problem with man is not that he is finite but that man doesn't believe that he is finite. I don't think it is quite the same idea as Hopkins. We are finite, mortal like leaves of grass, we wither and die (a misquote from Isaiah last Sunday and I think from Ecclesiates not that I can spell). We die, those we love die, people we have never met die.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday Five

From Sally at RevGalBlogPals The intro post is beautiful. I commend it to you.

Five things I long for this Advent:

1. That my congregation would understand my longing for Advent and not Christmas in these weeks before Christmas.

2. That the reign of God might be seen in more places; that justice would roll down like waters, righteous like an ever flowing stream. I weep over Zimbabwe, Sudan, Darfur, Africa in general, Mumbai, hatred. I weep over our hard headed ness that refuses to see our part in the hatred in this world.

3. That those who grieve will be comforted. That those who hunger will be fed. That the homeless will have shelter.

4. That I will learn to live each moment consciously.

5. That the darkness will envelop me, the quiet bring peace to me, and the coldness of the season warm my heart.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My pcp just called with my CA 125 blood test report. It was 9 three months ago. It's 24 yesterday. 35 is the top limit for normal, but mine was 34 when they found my tumor. (Some women have levels in the 1000s when they are diagnosed.) Generally, what is important is how the levels move. Down is good; up is bad. Inflammation can cause the levels to rise and I'm still sore achey from the surgery. In all probability it's from the surgery, but I'm just a little nervous right now.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Your Life in Six Words

I was listening to the radio coming to church this morning. Someone was reading a review of a book which asks people to describe their lives in six words.

My six words: Dared, Risked, Had Fun; No Regrets.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A new quote from Barth

It was Barth, I believe, who said we should preach with one hand on the Bible and one on the newspaper. Perhaps we should preach today with one hand on the Bible and the other on the blogs.

Monday, December 1, 2008

You'd think I'd know better

On Saturday I visited a parishioner in the hospital. She said something about dying and I said something dismissive. And then, later, I said I thought she looked good. At least then, I immediately said how much I hate it when people tell me that.

Not terribly present to others. Haven't come to terms with death yet. Can't believe I was so unconscious.

I really like this woman and don't want to lose her. I just lost a parishioner I really liked in late October. Need to find a spiritual director soon or quicker.

A sigh of relief

I went to see the surgeon who did my hernia repair today. I said something about being concerned about a recurrence of the ovarian cancer. He checked his notes and said that he hadn't seen anything that indicated a return. I go in for my CA-125 test on Wednesday (it is an unreliable blood test for ovarian cancer). I was worried. Just because I'm a hypercondriac doesn't mean I don't have cancer.