Adam Walker Cleaveland on Cancer Theology

May 15, 2012 · 6 comments

Cancer & Theology

This post is a part of a series which features an assortment of adroit voices exploring how to think theologically about cancer and those who have it. Read the series introduction or view all posts in the series.

Like others have mentioned, there will be profanity in this post. If you don't like that - go ahead and skip this post.

Jake asked me to blog about cancer and theology. At first, I wasn't sure I'd have much to say. I mean, I don't have cancer. But then, I got thinking and realized that my grandmommy died of cancer and my granddaddy died of cancer and my uncle died of cancer and my father had a run in with skin cancer. I also served as a chaplain for a summer in a hospital and met many people suffering from cancer.

Now, I don't know if all that necessarily qualifies me for having anything of worth to say about cancer. But. On October 25, 2010, my wife and I lost our two twin baby boys, Micah and Judah, just shy of 20 weeks into our pregnancy.

While infant loss and cancer are very different scenarios, they both fuck with your mind, your faith and everything else — so... I guess that counts for some ability to muse about faith-disrupting diseases and losses.

When we lost our babies, it was like time stood still. I knew shitty things happened to people during pregnancies, but I didn't imagine it would happen to us. Why would it happen to us?

Of course I went into the whole theological debate with myself about where God was in all of this, whether God caused this happen, why God would let this happen... and all of those other thoroughly unhelpful questions that one cannot but help to ask in the beginning.

Then I just got pissed. Like, really pissed. At the time, I owned a little 150cc scooter. One afternoon, I took a ride out on some country roads and drove as fast as my little scooter would take me (about 65mph). Once you can get the comical image out of your mind of a guy racing through the country on a scooter screaming at the top of his lungs... I'm guessing you might be able to relate with that anger.

I was angry at God.

Fortunately, we had many people in our lives who cared about us and wanted to do what they could. My Facebook Wall was filled with kind sentiments, prayers and lamentations. People brought prepared meals to our home. They sent cards and flowers and text messages. And it all helped. It really did.

But then the cards stopped coming.

The food no longer was delivered to our house.

The flowers died.

My faith began to be messed with.

And everyone else's life went on, back to normal. And we were left alone, trying to figure out what life meant after the death of our sons.

Jake didn't want us addressing his specific cancer, but I need to say that when I first heard about his diagnosis, I remember seeing it on Facebook and just saying, "Shit." I don't remember what I wrote, but it was short, and I just wanted him to know that I knew.

I followed his subsequent tweets and video/blog updates with great interest. I wanted him to know I was there, at least digitally, for him.

But then life caught up with me. Things got busy. And I had to get on with life after his diagnosis.

No matter how great the support of your partner, family, faith community, and others is, at some point, you will be left alone with your grief and frustration and anxiety and loss. And it's at those times when I had to try to come to terms with the fact that somehow, God was with me in my faith-disrupting dark night of the soul. I wasn't sure how it all worked out theologically, and to be honest, at that time, that wasn't very important to me. What was important was knowing that God was as pissed and angry about the death of Micah and Judah as I was, and God was sitting with me, with us, in our sadness and suffering.

So, if I had to share with someone a theological one-liner that might be appropriate for people in these tragic situations of death, loss, cancer and grief... it'd probably be something like:

"Know that somehow... God is with you in this. God is just as pissed and angry about this shitty situation, and God is there with you, suffering with you."

Adam Walker CleavelandAdam Walker Cleaveland is a Presbyterian pastor, father of 3 (1 living), husband, social media consultant, Apple fanboy, progressive Christian who lives in Ashland, Oregon. You can find him online at Pomomusings, Dazed Dad, Facebook, Twitter and of course, Google+.

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  • Mike Stavlund

    Great post, Adam.  Thank you. 

  • Eliacin

    Jake (and Adam) thank you for this.

    Man I have not followed
    blogs in about a year so I have miss this. My mother just decided to
    stop her chemo about a week ago. She is in Puerto Rico, I am over in
    Seattle. I still have not processed it. It has been awful to be away. I
    have been very emotionally detached from the whole situation, following
    the cultural script as the older brother in the family making sure
    things are taken care of, providing as much support as I can from afar.
    Grieving this which is in unhealthy ways. My mom will be visiting us in
    July she wanted to do it as long as she is strong enough to enjoy my
    kids/her grandkids. I am dreading already the time when Ill take her
    back to the airport and see her through the security gates.

    • Jake Bouma

      Eliacin, can you say more about her decision to stop? I dont mean to pry, just curious as to why I know that it can be really rough — way rougher than I have it. 

      As for dreading saying goodbye Its okay to let the dread commingle with your joy that she is with you when shes there as long as you dont let it eviscerate the joy.

      • Eliacin

        Jake Her treatment in Puerto Rico is done through public health care, very basic with not many options. Without going into a long story with lots of cultural issues, moving up here for other alternatives is not an option she is willing to consider yet.  She have been receiving chemo on an off for the last 18 months. Her cancer story started about 5 years ago. The way she articulate her decision is about quality right now, rather than quantity.

        • EricG

          My onc just talked to me this week about quality vs. quantity of life / whether I should be pdoing treatment. It is such a difficult decision. Im sorry you guys are going through this Eliacin.

          • Jake Bouma

            Eric Im terribly sorry to hear about that. I will pray for peace for you and yours.