Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Visible Sign

This morning my wife, my kids, and I sat around the Christmas tree and opened the gifts we gave one another.  Just as we were finishing, my wife's phone rang.

One of her parishioners was coming down from a bad high in a bad way.  The police were on the scene, and the whole family was understandably distressed.

I don't know many details, because as a priest she has to keep confidences.  All I know is that her parishioners were asking for her to come and help before things got out of hand.

Which raises the question, "How can a minister possibly help?"  She hasn't got a badge or a gun, so she can't arrest people and lock them up; she doesn't have a medical license, so she can't prescribe medications; she isn't a judge who can order someone to be placed in protective custody.

All she can do is be present with those who are suffering.  She can listen to those to whom no one else will listen.  She can pray with them, helping to connect those who are suffering with words to express that suffering.  She can deliver the sacrament, a visible and outward sign of indelible connection to a bigger community, reminding the lonely that they are not alone.

She quickly got out of her pajamas, put on a black shirt and her clerical collar, and picked up her Book of Common Prayer.  I kissed her before she went out the door, aware that she was going to a home where there was a troubled family, a belligerent drug user, and eight armed men charged with upholding the law.  Oh, boy.  "Do you want some company?" I asked, knowing there wasn't much I could offer besides that.  She said she'd be fine.

As she left, and the kids continued to examine their gifts, I sat and silently prayed (reluctantly, as always), joining her in her work in that small way.

I admit that I do not like church.  I can think of far pleasanter ways to spend my Sunday morning than leaving my house to stand, and sit, and kneel with a hundred relative strangers.

But this is one thing I love about churches: this deeply democratic commitment to including everyone in the community.  No one is to be left out.  No one gets more bread or more wine at the altar.  Everyone who needs solace, or penance, or forgiveness, or company, may have it.

The Book Of The Acts Of The Apostles, the fifth book of the Greek testament, tells the story of the early church as a place where people who needed food or money or other kinds of sustenance could come and find them.  Early on in that book we even see the story of how the church made a special office for people whose job it would be to oversee the equitable distribution of food to the poor.

I think highly of my own profession of teaching, because I think it serves a high social good.  But I teach in a small, selective liberal arts college.  Most of the people I serve have their lives pretty much together.  In general, they can pay their bills, they don't have huge drug or legal issues, they have supportive communities, they can think and write well.  Yes, most of them struggle with money and other things, but they keep their heads above water, and their futures are bright.

My wife, on the other hand, has a much broader "clientele."  She serves the congregations at our cathedral and several other parishes.  Her congregants range from the powerful and wealthy to the poorest of the poor.  Here in South Dakota more than half our diocese are Native Americans, and many more are refugees from conflicts in east Africa.  Ethnically, racially, economically, liturgically, and politically, this is a diverse group.

And again, it is a group where everyone is - or at least ought to be - welcome.

The church has always failed to live up to its ideals.  I don't dispute that.  Show me an institution that has good ideals and that always lives up to them, and I'll readily tip my hat to it.  What I love in the church is that it has these ideals and it has daily, weekly, and annual rituals by which we remind ourselves what those ideals are.  We screw them up, we distort and bastardize them, we even sell them to high bidders from time to time when we lose our heads and our hearts.  But then we remind ourselves that we should not.  And we have institutions and rituals of returning to the path we've departed from. 

We will probably always get it wrong. I'm okay with that, as long as we keep turning back towards what is right, as long as we maintain these traditions and rituals of self-examination and self-correction.  And as long as we cherish this ideal of welcoming everyone, absolutely everyone.  I don't mean just saying we welcome everyone, but I mean doing it.

Again, I work at a small college.  Colleges are places where we all talk a good game about being welcoming, and for the most part, we manage to practice what we preach, given the communities we work in.  But there's something really remarkable about seeing that ideal at work in a community where there are no grades and no graduation, where the congregation is not just 18-22 year-olds with high entrance exam scores, and where no one gets kicked out for failure to live up to the ideals of the place.

Last night we celebrated Christmas with hymns in two languages.
Hanhepi wakan kin!
Wonahon wotanin
Mahpiyata wowitan,
On Wakantanka yatanpi.
Christ Wanikiya hi!
That's the second verse of "Silent Night, Holy Night," from the Dakota Episcopal hymnal.  We sing the doxology in Dakota, and I'm happy to say that most of the white folks at several congregations in the area have it memorized in Dakota.  These are small things, but they might also be big things. If the baby Christ was the Word incarnate, surely little words can make a big difference.

My wife came home a hour or so after she left this morning.  I don't worry so much about her sudden comings and goings as I once did.  She gets calls late at night from broken-hearted families watching their beloved die in our hospitals.  Will she come and pray with them?  Will she come hold their hands for a little while, and be the vicarious presence of the whole church as they suffer?  Will she anoint the sick as a reminder of our shared hope for well-being for all people? Will she come to the jail to talk with the kid who has just been arrested, or to sit with his frightened parents?  Will she come to the nursing home where they're wondering if this is the last holiday a grandparent will see?

Yes, she will.  This is her calling, the work she has been ordained to do.  It is the work of love, and I love her for it.

As she walked in the door, I was going to greet her when her phone rang again.  I recognized from her conversation that it is a parishioner with memory problems who calls her almost every day to ask the same questions.  Sometimes it seems he has been drinking; most of the time it seems he is lonely and afraid.  I knew my greeting could wait, and as she patiently listened to her parishioner, I joined her in silent prayer, thanking God for the kindness she shows and represents, a visible sign of the ideal of our community.  She cheerfully wished him a Merry Christmas.  I think she was glad he knew what day it was.

I don't know how she does it, but she makes me want to keep trying.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Best Break-Up Ever

Last week my oncologist broke up with me.  It was the best break-up ever.

Fifteen years ago I got a call from my doctor.  He asked me, "Are you sitting down?"  Then he added, "I have some bad news from your tests."  Two days later I was in surgery having a tumor removed.

Our kids were small, we were young, and I was in my second year of grad school at St. John's College.  I earned an hourly wage as a substitute teacher at a local prep school, which I supplemented by teaching Spanish to a group of kindergarteners, giving Greek lessons to a high school student, and occasionally working as a fly-fishing guide in northern New Mexico. Like many graduate students, we lived far below the poverty level. We were fortunate to have basic health insurance, supportive families, WIC, and a great local church.  Even so, we knew we had an uncertain road ahead. 

Since then we've moved twice, I finished grad school at Penn State, and have been awarded tenure at a fine liberal arts college in South Dakota, Augustana College.

And over the years I've lost track of how many times I've been stuck with needles or made to swallow barium sulfate contrast.  Each time I drink that stuff it's worse than the last time.  It makes me feel like it's stripping my intestines of their very lining.  At first I could go to work afterwards, but the last few times I've had it it has left me too weak to walk for much of the day.

Who knows how much iodine radiocontrast I've had injected into my veins?  You feel it enter your vein, and the mild burn pulses, lub-dub, with each heartbeat, up your arm and then crashes into your heart.  A moment after it hits your heart, it explodes outward across your whole body.  It shoots up your neck, setting your throat abuzz, and then you taste metal.  At the same time it rushes downward and you feel like you've just wet your pants.  (I'm told many people do in fact become incontinent at this point.)

I've taken it all more or less in stride, because, as they say, fighting cancer beats the alternative.  In some ways, it was probably easier for me than for my family, since there wasn't much I could do about it other than submit to the treatment, and when I did, it left me too weak for worry.  My wife was nothing short of amazing when I was first diagnosed, taking care of three small kids and one sick husband.  She has a long and deep habit of prayer, and I think that was her sea anchor in a rough storm.

Each time we've moved I've had to find a new oncologist, and again, I've been fortunate to find good ones, serious physicians who really showed concern for me.  (Michael McHale in Sioux Falls always took the time to ask me about my life before he asked me about my body, and I am grateful for him like I am grateful for friends and ministers and counselors.  Our insurance wouldn't let me keep seeing him, unfortunately, so I've had a few other oncologists over the last three years.)

Last week, my current oncologist and I looked over my medical history together.  It's an annual ritual: we look at my tumor markers and my other bloodwork, my most recent X-rays or CT scan.  The doctor nods and says that nothing has changed, and he'll see me again in six months or a year.

This time, it was different.  "It has been fifteen years, and we haven't seen any new tumors," he said.  "It's possible that it will recur, of course.  You're in a higher risk group, and there could be some cells in some other part of your body that are slowly growing."  I'm used to hearing this, so I nodded, and looked in his eyes as I always do, to see if there's news I should brace myself for.

Having cancer at a young age was like an early midlife crisis.  It sharpened my focus and made me see that there was no point wasting whatever time I have left.  If there is something I should be doing, now is the time to do it, not later.  I'm trying to live fully now, not postponing life until I feel more rested, or more financially sound, or more ready for it.  I don't think I'm being reckless, but I'm trying to live well, and without regrets.  The days of my life are numbered, but I am unable to count any of them but the ones in the past, plus today.

It's not like I spend a lot of time thinking about my own mortality, mind you.  But every visit to the oncologist is a reminder that I am still alive.  My first oncologist told me, "you drew the historical long straw," explaining that only twenty years earlier my cancer was one of the least curable forms, but thanks to recent research it was now one of the most curable.

(As an aside, thanks for giving to that research, and please keep giving to organizations like the American Cancer Society.  I advise the Augustana College Chapter of Colleges Against Cancer, so I'd be remiss if I didn't put that in here!)

"But everything looks good.  I don't think you need to come back, as long as you and your regular doctor keep checking for lumps."

I think I must have looked like a cow staring at a new gate*, or a deer caught in the headlights.  He smiled at me.  "If you're okay with that, I mean."

"Yes, I'm okay with that," I stammered.

"Then we're graduating you.  No need to come back," he said.  He extended his hand to shake mine, and then he and his resident, congratulating me, left me to consider a life without coming back to his office.

I've lost a lot of friends and family to cancer, including my beautiful, wonderful mother.  A number of my friends and colleagues or their spouses are afflicted by rogue cells in their bodies right now.  It's a frightening, ugly thing to hear your body is growing itself out of its own orderly bounds, that some part of you is growing towards death, that your body has become entangled with a worse form of itself that threatens to overshadow all that is good in you.

So for now, I am still basking in the warmth of this best break-up ever.  I'm glad to hear my oncologist has dumped me.  I'm delighted to hear that those misfiring cell divisions have been banished from my body.

And I'm hoping that more and more people who long for such news will come to hear it soon, mindful that many who deserve to hear it never will.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have a fresh today to attend to.


* This is from Martin Luther.  He writes, wie ein kue ein neues thor ansihet.