Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Pacman

"Honey, honey, hush. Hush! Nothing is there," my mother said. "Trust me, I'll show you, monsters don't live under your bed."

Most of the women were strangers to me and, as is the way of polite company, were not what they first appeared to be. It was a writing seminar so we wrote. The quiet room was the color of french vanilla. Outside a lilac covered patio served as a foyer to the gardens. While I couldn't see the waterfall from where I was sitting, its splashing sweet song hinted of peace, of cool water on sun burned skin. But it was peace hinted, not embraced for I was not what I appeared to be. I listened, I smiled, I wrote. But moving stealthily within the deepest recesses of my body were malignant Pacman cells ferociously gobbling up good and happy ones. Cells making war on cells. Biological fratricide.

"We need to talk about pathology," said my surgeon weeks before the seminar. Whatever else was said in his exam room that afternoon disappeared into an emotional black hole. Everything, that is, except that he was certain. Cancer. Stage 4. Terror perforated my life and Heaven seemed silent.

So I came to the seminar to learn something about writing, hoping to rescript my life or at least to come to terms with it and the God I love. But over the course of the next two days other stories began to penetrate the below zero bone-aching cold of my own. Stories written and spoken by lovely and decent people that gave evidence of other gobbling Pacmen more hideous to me than mine. Beth wrote of her two sisters, one a twin, who were killed by their alcoholic father driving in a drunken rage. She survived only to suffocate on the guilt of surviving. Tina wrote of being raped by daddy and then by brother and then by brother's friends. Hate. Pernicious and venal. Savage mortal Pacman cells gobbling up good and happy ones. Someone should pay, they said, and Heaven seemed silent.

I do not know what became of Beth and Tina and the other lovely and decent women that I met that weekend a few years ago. But when I was told Monday that my remission has failed, that Pacman is back gobbling his way through my bones, I thought of them. And I thought of The Cross.

"Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, 'You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!'
In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.
'He saved others,' they said, 'but he can't save himself! He's the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.
'He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, 'I am the Son of God.' "
Matthew 27:39-43

Mortal Pacmen raised their fists at the foot of the cross that Friday while spiritual Pacmen screamed and screeched their apparent Hellish victory. Hate. Pernicious and venal. It cost God His very best but the curse of Pacman's hate and drunkenness and rape and despair was broken.

"The angel said to the women, 'Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.' "
Matthew 28:5-6

And speaking into the ravaged places of every heart that will choose to accept that His sacrifice was for them, is the song of the waterfalls peace and the redemption of Pacman's destruction. Not an answer to Beth's and Tina's and my question. Rather, a solution to our problem.

"And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.
And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.' "
Matthew 28:17-20

My beloved mother was wrong. Monsters can hide under the bed. Sometimes they are disease and sometimes they are car wrecks and sometimes they are dad. But Heaven's silence is never Heaven's absence.

The prophet cries out

Death will be swallowed up in victory.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mary's Choice

First there's confusion: "Hey, where's my car?"

Then there's unease. "I left it right here. I know I did."

Then there's panic. "Yes, I'm positive I did. Help! Call Security! Someone has stolen my car!"

And finally, humiliation. "We'll help you find it, Mam. Most cars are not stolen."

"Young man, do I look like an idiot? I know where I parked my car. I parked it here close to the front of the store where I usually go in."

"Yes, Mam, and you're sure you entered through Nordstrom's?"

"Of course I didn't enter through Nordstrom's. I entered through Macy's as I always do."

"Yes, Mam. Um, Mam? You're in the Nordstrom's lot. Macy's is around the corner."

Deafening silence, three wide-eyed blinks and then, "Please assure me, young man, that I didn't tell you my name."

If only I had listened to my friend who has learned the secret to not getting lost in parking lots: pay attention. "Notice your surroundings," she said. "Look for easily remembered landmarks."

Landmarks, markers, monuments - things that help us mark where we are so we can safely navigate to where we want to go. But I rush, too full of the mandatory to pay attention to the important. Too full of the should to be deepened by the could. I don't pay attention and I get lost.

This is the gift to me from metastatic cancer. I am learning to prefer Mary's choice.

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a village where a woman named Martha welcomed them into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord's feet, listening to what he taught.
But Martha was worrying over the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, "Lord, doesn't it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me."
But the Lord said to her, "My dear Martha, you are so upset over all these details! There is really only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it - and I won't take it away from her." Luke 10:38-42, New Living Translation

There are all kinds of lostness. Sara Groves sings winsomely of losing our baby teeth, our common sense, our innocence. Sometimes, she says, we lose our appetite, our guiding sense of wrong and right, and, on occasion, a will to fight. But her ideas are balanced with another which becomes her song title, for no matter what we lose, "We Cannot Lose God's Love." It is not just a clever song sweetly sung. Scripture is interwoven with powerful no-compromise promises* purposed to guide and to anchor the soul. I may feel lost this hour, but God knows exactly where I am. He also knows who I am and what I am and yet there is not one thing I can do to cause Him to love me more or love me less.

I quake when my prognosis sounds scary and my courage fails, I am despondent when my hair falls out and I feel embarrassed, I weep over the profoundly painful things in my life and the lives of my family and close friends. But when the quaking and the desponding and the weeping stop I find myself just where I need to be, right there with Mary, prostrate before my Ground of Being, needy and listening and receiving all I require. And for that moment that I allow it, there is no confusion, there is no unease, there is no panic and there is never humiliation. I see my Landmark and know that I'm not lost. At least, not for that moment that I allow.

*Two of my favorite Biblical promises:
"Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me, 
Isaiah 49:16
"...for he has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.'" Hebrews 13:5  

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Complex Good

Evil is never good even if good
may come from it...

Evil is always evil...

God exploits evil for His
redemptive purpose
and thereby produces

A complex good... 

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Adapted by Lynne Farrow*, Ventura, CA for her art journal exploring this theme.

Wednesday. Someone has been harshing my mellow. The enemy is at the gate and I blush at what continues to make me weep. It's my fingernails. Chemo nails, I call them. I have wigs to cover my hairless and now slightly fuzzy head but there is no covering for this indignity of creepy fingernails that have lifted off their nail bed. Fear begins to spiral me down into an old despair which I have learned can take me further than I am willing to go. Trust has flown the coop, taken a hike, left me in the dust and I can't seem to will it back. I want to rejoice that I am in remission. Instead the MP3 player in my head is set on repeat and I hear my oncologist's words, "The expectation is that the cancer will return... The expectation is that the cancer will return... The expectation is..." The battle is getting long. The skirmishes keep repeating and I'm losing ground in baby steps. I hate this disease and today I'm terrified of it's cure. 

Thursday. The librarian notices my nails. "Ohhh," she says. "That looks familiar." I try to shove my hands into non-existent pockets. "I want to tell you," she felt compelled to share, "I wouldn't trade my cancer experience for the world." "Really," I say, hoping my smile doesn't look like the grimace that it is. "Oh, yes," says friend librarian. "I have learned so much through it." She rejoices that she is cured and, truly, I am happy for her. But as I drive away it feels like a psalm of ashes. With Stage 4 we don't usually get cure; the blessed ones get chemical vacations. Pity party alert! Couldn't I learn what I need by just breaking a leg? I groan and look at my nails again. "Oh God, if I have to go back on those chemicals..."

Friday.  "A complex good..." I long to revisit such a trust - to forever pen "no fear" across this page of my journey, never visiting it again. But, like biblical manna, there is only enough trust for one day and my insufficiency may have more to do with a faulty perspective than a feeling. I remember the recent difficulty I had in taking a photograph of the ocean. Focusing on the distant water, I blurred the foliage. Focusing on the foliage, I blurred the cresting wave. I had to decide where to focus the shot. So too with my heart. Will I focus or trust or believe all that I fear and can see or will I focus or trust or believe God who knows the end from the beginning, who sees what lives in the dark, and who has promised he will work all things, good or ill, to the benefit of any and all his children? Acceptance of evil in the expectation of a greater good has long life in scripture: Jesus Christ in Gethsemane (Matthew 26), Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 45:7) and Paul in arduous journeys or prison (Romans 8:28. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Focusing on fear, I become wholly fearful. Focusing on trust I may still feel fear, but it does not prevent trust-filled behaviors.

Sunday.  There is great power in reflective  remembering. Pastor teaches on Romans 5:1-5 reminding us of the purpose of repeated affliction in building character and strength. He retells the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego (Daniel 3) who are bound and thrown into a furnace of fire. How, I wonder, did I miss this point before? They came out of that furnace with nothing burned away except the ropes that bound them when they were first thrown in. God puts us through the furnace of affliction not to harm but to set us free of the things that bind and control and imprison bringing good out of evil. As I reflect again today on Jesus Christ, I am surprised and humbled by the number of my own memories of escape and rescue and peace in the face of past evils. Fear, finally, is on the run...or at least on a fairly fast jog.

Most likely this will not be the last time fear scores a near win off me in our game of darts. But I trust it is going to find it harder to hit that bulls eye that it keeps trying to paint on my back side. The Bible says that when I was most vulnerable, when I did not love God, Jesus Christ gave his life for me. (Romans 5:8) As my pastor has said, if he loves us that much when we didn't love him, does it make any sense that he will not see each of us through to the end of whatever he brings into our lives when we are "one of his kids?" I have power to overcome because he gives me grace to do it. And the grace to do it is going to come from remembering and from practice. As in over and over and over again. 

It is a complex good. My mellow is unharshing.  
*The above photograph is the first page of an art journal which was created by Lynne Farrow to record her daughter's fight with cancer which included a double mastectomy and a partial hysterectomy. Anyone interested in exploring how to create their own art journal to document a significant life issue is invited to email Lynne at

Monday, April 21, 2008

Pie In the Sky

Like most people who feel compelled to create, I have a disturbing self-editor who seldom does me much good. Mine perches uninvited on my left shoulder and takes great umbrage at not only what I write about but how I say it. Looking like the old rooster that loved to terrorize little-girl toes when it was my turn to feed the chickens, it makes loud and obnoxious noises which sound like that song from the Music Man "pick-a-little, talk-a-little, pick-a-little, talk-a-little, pick-pick-pick, talk-a-lot, pick-a-little more." 

It's particularly discouraging today because I have been meditating on recent comments to this blog dealing with biblical hope and new beginnings as well as an eternal perspective regarding the realities of living with and through pain and profound despair. "What a lot of pie in the sky," says obnoxious rooster from the uninvited perch on my shoulder.  Where had I heard that before?

It was an interview recently on NPR. A noted scientist and author had made a comment about people who believe in life after death as exhibiting a "psychological weakness." There was a time and a place for that sort of belief, he argues, but it no longer exists as there is no longer a Darwinian advantage for it. We have evolved beyond it. I wonder if noted scientist and author has access to the same newspapers that I do.

"The Universe doesn't owe us meaning," he goes on to say. "If there isn't any meaning, there isn't any meaning and that's just tough." There is no pie in the sky. "However, " noted scientist and author quickly adds, "you can make your own meaning..." That, he goes on to explain, is in the work and art we produce, our love for nature and our families. But what, I wonder, about those people who cannot produce art and work, whose minds are either so undeveloped or savaged by vices of their own making or events they could not control that they cannot love or reason? The second way that noted scientist and author claims we can bring meaning to our life is by how we understand, how we interpret the existence of life and natural selection. So, there is meaning, just not the meaning said scientist and author doesn't approve. It's a meaning that begins with man, not God. The pie is only edible if it is man made and not God made.

Jesus said, "I am come that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly."John 10:10

"...that you, being rooted and established in love may have grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God." Ephesians 3:17-19

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves." Philippians 2:3

"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

If that is pie in the sky, make mine a large slice of lemon meringue. 

Monday, April 14, 2008

No Country For Old Women Either

My friend, Mini, has this theory that there's just so much fat in the world so when she loses 5 pounds someone else gains it. She says it works the same with depression. One gets out from under it then someone else finds it landing slap down on their head. She and I laugh as we conclude that the best way, then, to show love to our neighbor is to stay depressed and keep eating desert. 

Life sometimes seems just that absurd. But absurdities can take a dark turn and we laugh not as we read our own bloody newspaper headlines. While the end credits were running for No Country For Old Men the thought struck me that this is no country for old women either. At the end of his dark story exploring evil and good, Cormac McCarthy hits a raw nerve as evil wheels safely off into the sunset to terrify and torment another day. This while depicting the good sheriff as undone by the soullessness he has watched grow in the malevolence he and his progenitors have fought so long. There is no mortal victory in this fight, evil seems to win. 

I wish Mini's idea was true, that there's just a certain amount of fat and depression in the world and we pass it around and sorta share the burden. Instead, the earth and all mankind groan under the travail of things gone wrong and even the hardest among us can see that something is not right and hasn't been for a long time. Pain and brokenness, cruelty, sickness, dishonesty and degeneration dog us. As I look in the mirror I know that McCarthy is on to something. There is no amount of perversity the human heart is incapable of. But there is an answer, a foil to the darkness of his story which, ironically, was the result of another brutal killing that took place on the back side of a Roman colony 2000 years ago. The savage crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the preface for his shocking resurrection and it was that resurrection that turned evil on its ear. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, lover of the soul of man and this world which was made for and by his love, paid a price more costly than I can understand this side of my grave. Unwilling to let the whole mess go and begin again, he set about the business of redemption, reconciliation and restoration. 

"One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated  burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders." C. S. Lewis, Miracles

Lewis' idea matters for in that whole swaying mass are those we love as well as those we should. There are sweet grannies, murderers and everyone in between who has humbled their heart before the greatest of all burden bearers. Mini and I can rejoice after all. 

Those wishing to further explore this theme might enjoy Heaven by Randy Alcorn, 
and II Corinthians Chapter 5.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Magic Fix

I met Karen about a year after she died. Fortunately or not, this isn't going to be a ghost story. The only time I've been in peril of that experience was after consuming a small plate of chorizo enchiladas. ("There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!" said Scrooge to Jacob Marley's ghost.) 

It was a few of her emails which she had left behind that introduced her to me. A mutual friend had sent hard copies and told me that Karen was dying when she wrote them. Tragically, she had found a lump months before but was too afraid to see a doctor in time to save her life. The emails were about genuine fear but also about finding a place of genuine peace referenced in Psalm 18:19. 

"He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me."

I blush to say it now but I did not receive those emails as I would have liked. I was immediately suspicious and even angry. Suspicious: as in "How can this wretched woman, so driven earlier by fear as to bury her head in the sand regarding her own body, suddenly talk about finding genuine peace in the middle of dying?" Angry: still staggering from my own then-recent cancer diagnosis, I did not feel peace. I thought bitterly how easy it can be to cover up, to look and sound the way we think Christians are supposed to look and sound. I allowed Karen's peace to make me feel shame for my own lack of it and wanted to justify myself. When wounds are fresh and pain is raw the brain can freeze and everything we have known and believed might find a black hole. I wanted a Magic Fix. I wanted to not only look and sound OK, I wanted to be OK. I wanted to cry out and have a voice answer back. I wanted confusion met with light and understanding. Karen said she felt peace; I felt trapped. So I threw her emails away. Admittedly, not my finest hour.

There is a story told of a caged starling who in despair kept throwing itself against its prison bars exclaiming "I can't get out. I can't get out!"  The story continues with someone unsuccessfully attempting to break open the cage to release its tiny prisoner. "The bird flew to the place where I was attempting his deliverance, and thrusting his head through the bars, press'd his breast against it as if impatient. 'I fear, poor creature! said I, I cannot set thee at liberty.' 'No!' it cried. 'I can't get out - I can't get out.' " (The Starling, Laurence Sterne)

I understand Sterne's Starling, its pitiful crying out and great fear. That was me. Yet, try as I might, I could not forget Karen's messages nor her verse nor her peace. At last, sick and tired of feeling so very sick and tired, I simply stopped fighting and began to meditate on what I sometimes now like to call Karen's Psalm. And Karen's Psalm became mine with verses 16 and 17 and 18.

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. 
He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.
They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the LORD was my support.

So what is this spacious place that Karen spoke of, this place he has drawn us to? I believe it is the place where we are not trapped by the lie that this is all there is. It is the place of eternal perspective. All that cancer, falling airplanes, crashing cars, war, viruses and worn out arteries can do is kill me. There is a primordial biological promise that what is alive IS going to die - somewhere, somehow, sometime. But the Christian knows that death is the passageway to life anew. 

My deep water, my powerful enemy is not cancer but fear; fear of separation from those I love, fear of pain, fear of physical indignities. It can't kill me but it can rob me of living life fully, the life we are intended to live. The life of the large place begins with God's perspective and the biblical pattern that suffering and trouble, while often an outrage and usually unwelcome, can achieve something useful and productive for us, something worthwhile, something excellent and it gives us genuine hope which is not a wish but an expectation. Perhaps Madame Guyon said it best when she asked "And what is this 'large place'? What more can it be than God Himself..." Karen knew this and I have come to know it: There is a Fix but it isn't Magic. It is Authentic and it has a name, Jesus Christ. 

(For those interested in the biblical pattern regarding good coming from difficulty see 
2 Corinthians 4:7-18, James 1:2-4, James 1:12, I Peter 1:6-9, I Peter 5:8-11)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Granny, God and a Wishing Star

Granny, mother of my mother, could seem harsh. As in "Judith Marjeanne" (jeanne was usually pitched somewhere around high C) "you march your sorry parts in here and clean up this mess!" As in "Judith Marjeanne, mark my words, trouble is going to land slap down on your head." What usually landed "slap down" was a hard thwack from her thimbled index finger. But you had to know Granny. Or maybe you had to want to know her. She also rubbed my back on demand, taught me how to wish on a star and sometimes surprised me with what I wished for. Best of all, she took my side when Muddy said it was my turn to feed the chickens and I said it was not. Granny wore a corset and smelled of talcum. I adored her.

There are times when God too has seemed harsh. My own story, hard and painful as it has been for me and mine, is not the stuff of tragedy. In my case cancer had the civility to wait until my children were grown with families of their own. But Wayne just buried his young wife, Cheri, and will raise their two small boys without her. Six year old Alisa has flat lined three times this week, her tiny body riddled with cruel looking tubes while doctors consider a heart transplant. Young Christopher took a stray bullet while sitting at his piano lesson - a piano lesson - and may be paralyzed for life. Too many nightmare stories and no star on which to wish them away. 
What are we to think of God and his love in the face of such tragedies? How does a Christian remain intellectually and emotionally honest without succumbing to cop-out religious sounding niceties and pat answers that can choke the life out of our already broken and fear-filled hearts? I'm incapable of answering that question for friends in pain and wouldn't even try. ("Like one who takes away a garment on a cold one who sings songs to a heavy heart." Proverbs 25:20) No, those are times to come alongside, to "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). But in the long and dark and cold hours of my own confusion and fear an answer begins to take form. As with Granny who had to be known to be understood, so too with God and the clearest way to my understanding God is through his incarnate Christ.

"If the night is bad and our nerves are shattered and darkness comes and pain is all around and the Holy One is conspicuous by his absence and we want to know the true feelings of the inscrutable God toward us, we must turn and look at Jesus." Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust
It is not phony God talk when Ann Graham Lotz said "the times when you and I can't trust his hand of purpose, we must trust his heart of love." Trust. It's a big word that gets bigger with each additional chemo treatment. And it never seemed bigger than when our daughter lay in a hospital bed from a brain aneurism. Perhaps the reason I could bear Granny's thimble raps was because I knew her and in knowing her I had learned to trust her love for me. But it can sometimes be easier to trust our grannies than our God. I have found it helpful to remember that Jesus didn't give workshops on the whys of pain and suffering. What he gave instead was himself and I don't think that can be more eloquently described than by C.S. Lewis from Miracles.

"In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in midair, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover. He and it are both colored now that they have come up into the light: down below, where it lay colorless in the dark, he lost his color too."
When I was little I wished on a star. Now when fear and confusion and pain can suck all color from my hope and confidence, I cry out into the dark night and to the degree that I have learned it is safe to trust who he is, I can mostly trust what he does...mostly.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Big Why

Affliction. A disease, disorder, complaint, sorrow, torment, scourge, trouble

And you thought it was going to be just another day. The alarm went off, coffee was perfect, the shower did what it was supposed to do and you're out the door. It's not until later that you can mark that very day as the one in which life as you knew it screamed to a stop. Affliction picked the lock and moved right in. Up became down. Down became inside out. And inside out has remained just that.

For me it's breast cancer. Stage 4. "But why you?" my friend exclaimed with tears. I hadn't thought to ask. And now that the question was raised, I didn't much care why. Try as I might, I couldn't think of one thing so special about what my Granny might refer to as my "sorry parts" that I should be spared what is happening all around me. Is there anyone who does not know someone with cancer? "Maybe the better question," I said, "is why not me?"

But I was grateful for my friend's tears and her Big Why argument on my behalf. It felt like love which I sorely needed. Maybe the Whys, big and small, are ways of trying to get our hearts around what our brains cannot comprehend. Perhaps at best, as Tony Snow wrote, they "are designed more to express our anguish than to solicit an answer." And who of us is not affirmed by someone's anguish on our behalf, someone's prayer offered in those cold and lonely hours belonging neither to midnight nor morning? It was not said for nothing that we are to weep with those who weep.