‘It’s Cancer’ is perhaps the scariest words a loved one can say, and they will suck the breath from your lungs. At the Masters’ household the words have hung heavily. As some of you know, and others will learn by this both overdue and much avoided posting, we learned in early August that my wife Stacey has breast cancer.
This message was born from a ‘cancer coming out’ acknowledgement to the congregation I serve, tearfully delivered some time ago. Once we were able to put our situation to words, we quickly packed them away wanting time to work things through. As a family, we needed to work things out for ourselves, before any words on this site could be considered honest.
Now it is time.
With little question, these past months have been one of the hardest we have shared as a family in a long time.
Many of you know that two decades ago, Stacey got sick with Non Hodgkins Lymphoma, an aggressive cancer of the Lymph nodes. Over the past twenty years of remission, we have had a handful of scares, so when Stacey discovered a lump in late summer, we – at first – decided that it had to be just one more scare; “One more reminder, to not lose sight of the blessing that comes with health” we told ourselves
But… Now that its officially not “just a reminder” but something much, much more –the news just sucks. There is little more that can scare the hell out of you more than hearing the word ‘cancer’.
And if that word ‘cancer’ alone wasn’t scary enough, somewhere along the way someone decided to give cancers really scary sounding names. Over the last few months, we have learned that Stacey has something called Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. It sounds so ugly, that it literally sucks the breath from your lungs. Invasive and carcinoma applied to someone you love leaves you wordless.
With that fresh diagnosis, our world was shaken. As a family, we have quietly worked our way through biopsies, surgery, 36 visits for radiation, and starting tomorrow, January 2nd we begin the hardest part of this battle; Chemotherapy and all that comes with it.
Although this has been a hard time for this family, I have come to remember several things. First; my wife is the toughest woman I have ever met. She comes from a heritage of tough women. Look to my wife, my mother-in-law, and the generations of women before them and you will find only the strongest of women. If you want to find a case study of tough-get-it-done women, poke around in their family tree.
Two: when it comes to my the welfare of all my girls, I am the toughest SOB you will meet. I have long ago embraced the truth that of all the holy calls in my life there is none stronger and holier than for me to be their champion, and their protector. I am confident that if any threat comes our way, I will indeed meet it face to face, and in the end, be the last man standing.
That said, combining tough woman with equal parts tough SOB, you have a force to reckon with. In that reality, I am confident. Rest assured, we will meet this challenge with equal parts passion, prayer, and brute force.
Now, with that gust of bravado aside, I must admit that when I first heard this ugly bit of news, to say that I was sucker punched would have been an understatement. I was pissed off, heartbroken, angry, and afraid all at the same time. I was angry at twists of fate. I was asking myself what if I lose her, and for a time, that fear was overwhelming.
I have said (and still do) that it wasn’t fair that she had to go through this again. In the echoes of that initial diagnosis, the anger was at full force. I was angry at doctors. I was angry at fate. I was angry that our attempts at healthy living and eating were not enough. I was angry at a lot of things.
I must also admit that on that hazy Tuesday morning when we learned, I was angry at God.
Being angry at God is not a good place to be when you are a pastor. During any given week, one of the chief struggles of the pastor is hearing God’s direction in your daily walk. Crafting a meaningful message in the noise of your day to day is often a challenge. That challenge is made exponentially more difficult when you feel like you are tumbling. When you find yourself mad at God, finding – or hearing – the right message is hard.
I found myself asking how do I stand straight and strong, when my knees are shaking so badly?
In the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis, I found sermon creation more of an act of staring at an empty screen on the computer. After what seemed like way too long, I decided I needed help, and hoping to get the creative spark going, I pulled out a couple of books from the shelf in my office; the United Methodist Hymnal was one of them.
It was the first book that I flipped through, almost absent mindedly. After a few moments and just about when I was about to put it aside, I stopped on the text from the Great Thanksgiving; the words of which we recite together each communion Sunday.
As I stared at the words, I paused long enough to make the mental note that in addition to the need to share this bad news to the congregation, that particular Sunday we were to celebrate communion. As I paused over the words from the liturgy for our communion, I read the words quickly. Then I read those words again, and then again.
I found myself stopping on the following words from the first few moments of our celebration. They are words that had almost become rote and ritual. That was until I read them from filter of clenched fists and shaking knees.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is right, and a good and joyful thing,
always and everywhere to give thanks to you,
Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Over the next few minutes, I just stared at those words. For the first time in a very long while, I slowly began to hear them. They weren’t the half memorized words that seem almost rhythmic on the first Sunday of each month. Someone was speaking in those words to me. The words truly came alive. They almost danced on the page.
Holy are you, God, and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ.
Your Spirit anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when you would save your people.
He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.
For the first time in a very long time, in these incredible words, I heard the promise. My heart broke. The flood gates opened. I forgot about how angry I was at God, and instead I reached out to him with both hands.
What followed were one of the most sacred and holy moments in my life. I cannot and will not attempt to put that moment to words. I guess the best that I can relay is ‘assurance’. That will have to be enough.
What I can tell you is that as I sat there, I found myself remembering a story I had first heard many years earlier. It was a story that meant a lot to me when I was first struggling with what I believed, and it seemed to come rushing back to my thinking that afternoon. It story of a missionary written into a book about Good Friday, entitled “Six Hours One Friday” by famed Christian author, Max Lucado.
The story tells about the adventures of missionary in Brazil. While serving the native people, a contagious virus began spreading among the people; and people where dying one after another.
Although he tried to help treat the people as best he could, he realized that it was more than he could handle. He realized that he needed to get those that were early on in the sickness through the jungle and to a medical clinic many miles away.
After an extensive conversation, he had convinced the full number to go, and without delay they made their trek. They were making great headway on their trip to the clinic until they stumbled upon a river. At the river everyone stopped, and no measure of discussion was going to get them to cross it.
The river had become more than a river for those that lived in the village. They believed that the river was the home of great evil spirits, and if they waded into it, they would surely die. The missionary explained that he had crossed the river to get to them on his initial trip and there was no danger in the waters. The people refused to move.
He told them, they would lose everything and likely die in misery if they returned home. They remained unmoved. He put his hand in the water, slapped the waves back and forth to show them it was safe. No difference was had, they were still afraid. He waded into the waves until the water was waist deep but still no one budged. Finally with a level of frustration near overflowing, he said enough was enough.
Without thinking twice, he dove under. He proceeded to swim the full length of the river, mostly underwater. Finally when he reached the other side, he rose through the surface of the river, and with a clenched fist in the air, released a tribal scream of victory. After a moment, he looked back at the tribe who stood in silence. After a moment, they too erupted into cheers themselves, and waded into the river.
Reading those “Great Thanksgiving” words I saw that river in my head. I remembered that our victory over the river, is what Holy Communion is about.
When folks ask me about my understanding of holy communion, the most sacred moment in our faith, I say is about celebrating
a living, real and powerful relationship with the man who showed us how to break through our fear, our cowardice, or self pity, and our anger. In the bread and wine we celebrate that spiritual fist in the air that screams out with assurance to each us; “See…follow me!…Its way better on this side of the river… We’ve got this raging nightmare conquered”
Since that moment with the hymnal, I have started to hear more as well. I have found myself intentionally pausing, reflecting, and reading more into Jesus’ use of the bread and wine. Although I have yet to find the much needed theologian to back up my understanding with any degree of credibility – and I am unsure whether it would pass doctrinal muster by any of my peers- I have come to see something else in the bread and wine.
In my travel through scripture, I have seen a great deal of meaning built around the mention of bread. It is almost as if bread becomes a gift to those who struggle. In pain and hurt, bread from heaven was offered to the Jew wandering in the desert. In pain and hurt, bread was offered Jesus in the wilderness. Bread is sustenance.
At the same time, wine is most frequently a symbol of celebration. The call to Eat, drink and be merry comes to mind. I have started to pause and recognize that scripture so often aligns wine with celebration. I think of Ecclesiastes 9, which says; “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.”
Over the past few months, this sacred moment of bread and wine has taken on a greater personal significance. I have started to think that maybe we are reminded in those broken moments when all we can do is hurt that Jesus reaches into our hearts and says; “I’m here. I see you are hurting and in pain; take this bread” Be sustained, be feed, and be full in me – acknowledge the gift”.
I have also become hesitant to too quickly pass over over the divine connection in our moments of joy – moments of wine – when we have forgotten the pain and are lost in our own happiness. I have started to think, that maybe in those moments Jesus reaches into our hearts with an equally clear message. Maybe this moment is when he says; “I’m here too. I see you celebrating and rejoicing; take and drink this wine – acknowledge the gift”
All of a sudden I am seeing communion as a moment when God reaches straight to me, and says ‘Yes I am here. No matter how crappy or how wonderful your situation is, I am here. Hold on to that.”
I have found comfort in looking at this moment in this way. In the end, on our holy communion table is the reminder, that in the good and the bad… In the joys of the regular, and in the pain of our individual Tuesday afternoons with doctors on the other side of the table, Jesus is reaching down saying,
“Tuesday may be bad… but I am right here. I’m going to be here when you think Wednesday will never come, when you are cursing Thursday and Friday, and I will be here when finally you make it to Sunday with joyous celebration. I will be here in both times of bread and in times of wine”
This promise provides a comfort that is immense and I pray that I – and that each of you who hear this message– no matter what ugliness crosses our paths, will never – ever – lose sight of this truth. I pray that with the gift of faith and the help of our family, our church, and the bread and wine I will remember that there will be no Tuesday afternoon that will ever break us.
If there is one single gift that I would hope would mark my ministry, it would be that recognition; It would be the recognition and the realization, that yes, with the gift of bread and wine, we are stronger than any given Tuesday.
So, tomorrow as my family begins this unwelcomed adventure in modern pharmacology– and in the light of all the joys and sorrows we all share – some big, some small – I will pray for the reminder.
I will pray for the reminder that God used this one man, to help open our eyes to the joys and sorrows, the bread and wine, of this world…and God’s role and place in both.
Tomorrow morning I will cling to the promise that God allows us to jump in the river and know we will get to other side,
I will cling, with shaking knees, to the promise that with God, I can walk through the darkness, with chest out and head held high, knowing there will be light and joy.
I will cling to the promise that with God, we can simply stand strong in the face of whatever some random, dark Tuesday, will throw our way.
We appreciate and hold closely your prayers as we undertake this great adventure.
With God’s Shalom, S.