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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Article Four: Walking Out of the Shadows

Quite a while back I was asked to write a series of articles of around 800 words to reflect on the nature of being a Christian leader with Cancer.  They are really just a summary (of sorts) of what is contained in this blog. This blog has been stationary for a while, but I am doing really well. Find me on Facebook, or through this blog if you wish to chat...anytime!

These articles and in order from Last to first, so please scroll down to the beginning to get them in order! They are all here now.

Walking Out of the Shadows Part 4
There is an old saying birthed out of 19th century rural living : " Fight fire with fire. People would start fires in a controlled fashion to deny a larger, natural one from finding more fuel. That's not a bad description of going through cancer. The disease is like a fire; burning more fiercely in some than others, always searching for more fuel. Healthy tissue, is not the only thing consumed. At a time when you are least able to deal with it, your environments of finance, spirituality emotion, and self image are food for the flame.

The, comes the diagnoses and treatments.....
This is the "controlled fire".

When a fire is out and you visit the scene all is quiet, black and surreal. You get a sense of the battle that took place  and devastation echoes loudly in the depth of your being.
After my treatments I was underweight, starving, hardly able to talk, weakened, lonely and afraid.

There is an attitude that getting over cancer should be a cause for celebration. This is usually voiced by people who haven't  been deeply challenged ..it depends on how big your fire was.

 A diagnosis of debilitating illness, the treatment and aftermath, consumes  a lot of the control that you had over your life . Cancer patients find themselves overwhelmed with questions at 3a.m about things that others take for granted, and they no longer can.

I was amazed at how hard it was to get to the point to where I really wanted to fight to regain my strength , and even more amazed at the onslaught of emotions that came when I started to fight.

Through tears of frustration, in weakness and uncertainty I would walk the 60 feet or so from the Rectory to the back door of the Church in an attempt to get moving again.

I used to go over to the Church to be alone and try to face the reality of being broken, busted, angry and afraid.  (Yes and deal with a bit of self pity too).
When walking around St. Martin's  on those seemingly never-ending days I wondered how much longer I would be here...and wondering If I would ever be able to lead this Church again.
 At first,I held on to each pew to keep from falling. Gradually I made one, then two circuits of the Church building before  I had to sit down .
One day I made it up to the balcony of the Cathedral.  

Then I returned to lead worship. Helped through by the associate clergy and a patient, loving parish I regained my voice, strength and confidence.

Now, almost four years after my treatments my MRI is good, Chest X-Ray is good and I am still headed in the right direction. Thanks to radiation I live with some issues of the throat, and chemotherapy has left neuropathy in my hands and feet.

But I can play my guitar, I can sing, and I can declare Gods Grace with a clear voice. Clearer, honestly and more joyfully I might add, than ever before in my life.
Cancer challenged me  to surrender and admit my frustration, anger, fear, disappointment, pain and unbelief to myself and THEN honestly and openly before God.
I did surrender, and in so doing began to see the Grace that surrounded me on my treacherous sojourn in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and in even in the slow steps that I was finally able to take towards the other end, and walk out of the shadow.

In the Church we describe Sacraments as something we can see, hear, feel, taste , touch and experience as that which connects us to the Grace of Our God.

Somewhere along the line, I wanted to symbolically and sacramentally mark my emergence from the Valley of Darkness. I decided to walk to Glenwood from Gander as a walk of prayer and thanksgiving. It turned into much more than that.

As I began to share the idea with others, many decided they wanted to join the pilgrimage. We decided that if folks wanted to donate, we would offer the gifts to the local Cancer Clinic to directly help people who needed support by providing fuel for them to travel. Our walk, in addition to the spiritual blessings raised over $11,000.00.

October 26 ,2013   was It was a beautiful, sunny fall day.

I got out of bed, shook the neuropathy out of my feet and hands and headed for the door.   A group of us met just outside Gander, had a time of prayer and walked together.

The Destination was St. Andrews Church, Glenwood  where we would read the 23rd Psalm and Thank God for His Love and mercy.

We were close to 60 strong in terms of actual walkers, but much larger in number through those who participated through donations, promotion and providing vehicle support, moral support. A shorter walk took place later in the afternoon as another group walked around the town of Gander.
We walked  in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, in the love and family of Christ's Church here on earth, and in Communion with those whom we love but see no longer.

 I set out with the crowd after our prayer, and was able to move through the crown while we were still close together, hugging and touching every person as a gesture of my gratitude .

At one point I looked at those close to me and said..."see you when you get to Glenwood!" They laughed...but I had asked the Lord to bless me with a physical  rhythm, and a focused  attitude of prayer. I was already loaded up emotionally as you can imagine with the imagery of Walking out of the Shadows into the warm light of Creation, and the warm love of the Church. So eventually, I moved to the front of the pack...and made it in exactly three hours.

It was a good day.
I had asked God to minister to me as I walked. I asked Him to place the images of people and their struggles within my imagination so that I could pray....I became very aware of the gift of nature as I looked deliberately to the Left and Right, enjoying the view and signs of life. It was a prayer walk of intentionally being before God in reflection for these people and their various circumstances that the Spirit placed in my mind. There were times while walking that I wept openly. I realized that I was still being called and equipped to be a leader in our precious Church.

 There were times while walking when I was overwhelmed by the knowledge of all the people who were walking behind me. Knowing you are supported...and knowing that we support each other gives meaning to the Church that is hard to put into words.
 Though we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we will fear nothing...Because God is with us...and has given us the gift of each other. We are not alone. Thanks Be to God.

Article Three - Light in The Darkness

When you are told you have Cancer your world gets very small. You are dealing with the diagnosis. How bad is it? What caused this? What am I going to do?  Treatments have to be set up. Schedules need to be dealt with. You decide which people need to know what is going on, and you have to get yourself ready. Your new world is small, but incredibly complicated.
Once things are "in place and settled down", the spiritual and emotional challenges begin to emerge from the fog; they take shape and look you in the eye.

In spite of  common elements, Cancer is a distinctly
lonely journey because it is not the same for everyone. Some have very treatable illnesses and attain the  blessing of a lighter and brighter perspective. Optimism is an essential part of healing for Cancer patients, and when the person who is ill is radiates positive energy, it makes most people comfortable.
Others have gone deeper into the Valley of the Shadow. The battle is intense, complex and exhausting . The shadows there obscure and challenge the light of faith causing denial, fear, and sadness.  Many have died while they were still in the Valley. I almost did.

On a spiritual level when  safe routines are broken, or sudden change comes, people are led (or forced)  to a place where two things can happen:
1. Losing Sight of God and faith, or
2.The nurturing of a deeper, more real and Honest relationship with God . Neither of these will happen without a struggle.
Our scriptures are filled with images of  people struggling:
Jacob alone at Peniel wrestling with God.
Abraham receiving and giving up the life of his son.
Job, challenged by life tragedies
Jesus in Gethsemane

Psalm 88:18: You caused my friends and loved ones to leave me.
    Now darkness is my closest friend.

I spoke to one of my parishioners in a quiet shared moment at the Cathedral. I had said "God had me right where he wanted me; late at night alone and helpless in a bed in a palliative care room bed after radical chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  I told God I was ready to listen."
My friend asked "What did he say?" My response: "Absolutely nothing"

 Then I added..."Now let me finish".  "God said nothing. All was dark.  But I continued to wait ,and  in that I became totally honest "with whatever was out there" .  Lying in physical and spiritual darkness I let everything go. As I openly declared my sense of fear, anger, weakness, and helplessness I realized that I was fully acknowledging the presence of some of these things for the first time in my life. In that moment, I was overwhelmed by God's elusive presence and knew I was closer to God than ever before in my life.

Much has been written about these ideas of " Luminous Darkness, and Dark Nights of the Soul", and I have experienced them both at different times and at different levels in my life, but never like this.
It gave birth to a whole new hope and faith within me.
Shortly after that I spoke to my Children calmly, and with great peace letting them know that no matter what the outcome, I was going to be just fine.

Now,  almost four years after as I continue sorting through the collateral damage, I am still discovering and learning to articulate what I have come to call the "Giftedness of the Darkness"

Cancer changed me forever because I could no longer ignore the questions or the deep call from within, to integrity and courage in seeking the truth.
I have come to see that the questions I have asked after my catastrophe are  really the same ones I have been asking all along.

It has deepened the empathy I have for those who suffer, and has caused me to place even greater importance on the value  of the Church as a community of people, bound in faith and authentic love and concern for each other.

Recently, I was working through a long, difficult day.  Suppertime  was near and some family and friends were gathering at our place to share a meal.  When I arrived at the house two of my grandkids were already there. 
 I had a just few hours, before having leave the rectory and head out again.  In my tiredness   I wished I could settle in for the evening, hang out with the family, and have an early night. 
My wife placed my infant grandson in my arms because: " I am getting supper, you have to go out again, so make the best of it."
I did. Having Trygger in my arms, and Teghan running around demanded my full attention. As I walked and rocked and gurgled and sang to my grandson his big blue eyes began to get heavy. It took about an hour, but he finally fell asleep in my arms. This little meditation emerged from my heart:
Long rough days...are best ended when you rock your grandson and he falls asleep in your arms.
We pour our hearts out to the world in the hope that the truest words are heard, and the broken ones are forgiven....when a child trusts you enough to let go and sleep...eternity whispers to you and says....all will be well. Thank you Lord.

Article Two : The Green Chair

Article # 2 In The Green Chair

Green patient's chairs wait in a corner of each small examination room at the Cancer Clinic in St. John's. For my first time  in that dubious seat of honour, an oncology team comprised of doctors, nurses, specialists and students were all gathered around me in this one place.  One physician spoke about the treatments I was about to undergo while  the others looked quietly at me, assessing my reaction. 
  "We are going to make you very, very sick.”.
 The Chemotherapy would be among the highest doses ever given in our province.  I would start off in the Gander  clinic for two doses  then be admitted and isolated for a 120 hour regimen of more Chemotherapy.  I would be helped as "best they could", to keep me going. Once  recovered enough, I would  travel to St. John's  for radiation interspersed with more chemotherapy . This cycle would be repeated  several times in the hope of destroying the tumour.  Each round of chemotherapy wiped out my white blood cells ,my weakness and vulnerability compounded by serious radiation burns from the inside out of my neck. I could not eat or swallow for weeks at a time, and had to fight against malnutrition infections and dehydration. I became helpless. The staff at the Cancer Clinics in Gander and St. John’s was attentive, encouraging and sympathetic to me and my wife Karen, who never left my side. They went above the call of duty, and kept me going.

Beyond family, only the Vestry and Wardens of our parish knew about my illness. After my diagnosis and treatments were outlined I spoke to the congregation during a very emotional Eucharist  to disclose every detail.

 We have a strong, trusting and loving fellowship among the leadership and membership of the Cathedral . I felt  it important for my Church family to be part of the whole journey. I believed that Jesus would use all of this to strengthen and bless the Church.

 I told everyone that I was about to take a long walk through the Valley of The Shadow and  would make sure that they knew everything that was happening. I started an online blog  to honestly share my physical, mental and spiritual challenges.  I wanted to make sure that people got the right story, and I honestly believed, that even in darkness and despair, God's love would be found by sightings and glimpses of Grace  in the Valley of the Shadow.  I had no idea at the time as to just how dark, lonely and painful this journey was to be.
Good wishes and love poured in for the next eight months from our Parish and beyond providing both a sustaining energy, and much material to ponder theologically.

It is not easy to portray the entirety of my theological reflection in a short article, but let me leave you with these two contrasting memories for your own reflection: Many people would say something like this to me:  "Revd. John, you will be all right. God won't let anything happen to you. He still needs you do so much more work ." Good words. Well intentioned and somewhat comforting.Somewhat.

When I began my ordained ministry years ago, one of the first sick persons I ministered to was an  lady in the final stages of Cancer. I'll never forget the incredible sadness in her eyes or her plea: " I don't understand why God is letting this happen to me. I have served Him well, and still have so much to offer."

I have journeyed as best I could, part way through the Valley with some people.
But no other person can ever get you through to the other side.
Whatever brokenness or illness that causes your pain, is yours. You are the only person who can work it out with God. Others who love you will try to share it, carry it for you, and weep with you. Thank God for those people. They are Sacramental. They are glimpses of blue sky on a rainy day, their love is a healing power and because of them, the journey can become bearable...even beautiful, as God makes His point for your life known.