cancer and theology

Nate Frambach on Cancer Theology

May 29, 2012 · 4 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.

I'm writing the first paragraph last, now that I have finished the rest of this post. I'm writing it last because I wasn’t sure how this would all shake out and I wanted to begin with honesty. Now that it’s written I can say honestly that I’m grateful to be a part of this and offer my paltry contribution. When first I received the invitation from Jake, I thought, "Shit. I don’t want to get into this again. I don’t want to forage around in the mess that cancer has made in my own small experience of living and dying." But resistance, like pain and suffering, is a good teacher. Cancer evokes fear and anxiety, and confronts one with the reality of finitude — often much sooner than one wants to be confronted with that reality. So I paid attention to my resistance and realized that there is no “getting back into this again” because one is never out of it. Once you have been existentially punched in the gut with something like cancer, you never quite breathe the same way again. You breathe, but you breathe a bit more carefully and gratefully. So thanks, Jake, and way to go, me, for choosing to write toward the very end after so many brilliant voices have already spoken.

My parents were divorced when I was five years old. Although my father lived a mere 20 minutes or so away as the crow flies, my relationship with him was among the most emotionally distant and disconnected of my entire life. For all practical purposes, my Uncle Mike (Fulton) was the closest thing I had to a father growing up.

Mike Fulton was a curious combination of a man: a landscape artist who taught art at the high school I attended; a closet cowboy living in northeast Ohio known for his signature cowboy boots and pearl-snap western shirts; a devout Lutheran who was born and raised in the Missouri Synod church; and an avid, if not staunch Notre Dame fan.

I was a freshly minted teenager when Mike Fulton married my mother’s youngest sister, Vickie, and during the formative years in my life that followed my Uncle Mike functionally was the closest thing that I had to a father. In spite of a lifetime of conflicted feelings about my biological father, eventually I came to realize that the fathering my Uncle Mike provided was more than sufficient.

Mike Fulton took me to the sporting goods store in Medina to help me purchase my first jock strap and athletic cup before 7th grade football. Many Saturdays he would take my brother and me to Taco Bell so we could eat cheap bean-and-cheese burritos. And before my first real date, he told me, “A little kiss won’t hurt anyone, but keep your hands to yourself.” But perhaps more than anything, he taught me to respect women through his own indefatigable care for my Aunt Vickie and patience with her sisters.

Cancer came to visit my Uncle Mike many years ago and he lived through the initial bout. It returned to stay in 2007. From 2007 to August of 2009 we made trips too numerous to count to visit my Uncle Mike and Aunt Vickie. Holidays, school breaks, during the summer I would load my own two boys in the car and we would make the 9 1/2 hour drive from Dubuque to the log house in the country where they lived in southern Medina county (Ohio).

The rhythm of our visits was simple: we would sit together, talk and watch sports on TV, go outside and “putz around the yard,” as he liked to say, then repeat. He would take us on long drives through Amish country in his truck. And he loved to sit on the front porch of the house, easel and charcoal in hand, and watch us play whiffle ball in the vast front yard of the country home while he sketched.

The school we attended with my Uncle Mike for over two years had a specific curriculum: learning to befriend suffering, confronting mortality, and living with and through dying. Ernst Becker writes, "Education for man [sic] means facing up to his natural impotence and death." As Luther urged us: "I say die, i.e., taste death as though it were present." It is only if you "taste" death with the lips of your living body that you can know emotionally that you are a creature who will die.

Among other things, in the face of what Ernst Becker called our human "immortality projects" — all of our heroic attempts at denying and defying death — cancer compels one to come to terms with our finitude. In Jesus Christ God stares into the face of finitude, steps into it, embraces it, and then calls it out of its tomb into a life of freedom characterized not by heroism, but by trust, vulnerability and promise.

It’s one thing to think about or ponder mortality or finitude from a somewhat removed academic distance; it’s quite another thing to be confronted with the reality of death through the life of someone you love. But both of these pale in comparison to the existential punch in the gut that occurs when something like cancer comes to roost in your own body. No one knows what this is like except the person who is living with it.

And so we would simply go and spend time with my Uncle Mike. We would talk and sometimes not talk; joke around and sometimes cry; eat pie when Mike was able, play whiffle ball so he could watch and sketch, and putz around in the yard. In short, we would try to live it with him.

In the last chapter of the fourth volume of Frederick Buechner’s memoirs, The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, he tells of the final conversation he had with his brother Jamie, who was dying from "cancer of virtually everything." Buechner told his brother that he had loved him as much as he had ever loved anybody in his life, to which Jamie responded that Freddie had been a wonderful brother. I had a similar conversation with my Uncle Mike about a month before he died. I introduced him to the writing of Wendell Berry, America’s farmer poet, and just about every visit we would discuss whichever of Berry’s books he had been reading. I read a short excerpt for him from Andy Catlett: Early Travels: A Novel, where Berry suggests that the great question to ponder at the end of one’s life — or anytime for that matter — is if you "have been grateful enough for love received and given." And then we wept. And then we prayed (at his request):

"Dear God, bring us through the night and into the light. Bring us through pain into peace. Bring us through death into life. Be with us wherever we go, and with everyone we love. In Christ’s name we ask it. Amen."

Mike said he was ready to die, and wanted me to assure him that I would take care of his funeral service and all of the arrangements at church per the many conversations we had had about those matters. I assured him that I would, and then told him that I loved him, that he had been like a father to me and I wanted him to know that. It is a gift to be loved truly; it is a blessing to truly love another.

What counsel might I suggest in lieu of the well-intentioned but trite theological platitudes so often offered in response to a crisis such as a cancer diagnosis? What I have to offer is not so much something that one says as it is something a person and (hopefully) a community seek to live and embody: I don’t know what to say and I don’t know what to do, but I’m going to stick with you until we figure it out. Although it is a long day’s dying for us all, the shadows wane, and God’s promise of new life in Jesus Christ casts light on the land of the living as well.

Nate FrambachNate is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is Professor of Youth, Culture Mission at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He and is the author of Emerging Ministry: Being Church Today and a contributor to The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices.

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Paul Amlin on Cancer Theology

May 21, 2012 · 2 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.

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for several weeks now, listening intently to life around me in hopes that I would find some wise words to share. I was listening to a sermon by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wherein she talks about some things people say to comfort those going through difficult times. One of the classics she brilliantly framed was, "When a door closes, God opens a window." Nadia’s response? "It makes me want to ask exactly where is that window so I can push them the hell out of it." I shook my fist in the air in affirmation of her perfect response to something I heard far too often during my own journey a few years back.

You see, I am a cancer survivor.

I say that with some level of pride, but mostly as an encouragement to people like Jake and the millions of others facing this disease. My journey with the same disease as Jake began as I was racing through life to finish an undergraduate degree in anticipation of seminary, working full time as a youth and family minister, and raising an amazing son (age 12 at the time), detailing cars on the side to help pay for college, and loving my wife, Lorice, in the in-between moments. I felt like I could do and accomplish anything in those years leading up to my diagnosis.

My journey through cancer began with a lump on my neck, persistent tiredness, fever, aches and pains that gave way to visits to doctors and eventually a specialist. A cadre of other doctors and technicians and a bevy of biopsies and tests led to a surgical biopsy. My wife was the first to hear the news that it didn’t look good from the surgeon and the next day she and I sat at his desk to hear the diagnosis together. Cancer. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. What began in an individual way quickly grew to include a small community, in fact, a few small communities. That’s what I’ve decided to write about. Cancer as a communal, theological event.

I’ve followed Jake’s blog since his diagnosis. I have to admit, it has stirred some pretty uncomfortable feelings in me. Things I haven’t thought much about since my treatment have rushed back into my mind in both good and bad ways. As I watched Jake's video blog about losing his hair and ultimately coming to the conclusion that the right thing to do would be to shave his head, I found myself beginning to experience "manly moist eyes" and I wondered what it was about watching Jake's process for reaching his conclusion that drew out such an emotional response from me. We are, after all, the sum of our parts and some of our parts are, well, hair!

Could it be, I reasoned, that in making the conscious choice to shave my head I was relinquishing some level of control over my circumstance or acknowledging that my disease was bigger than I? Letting go of my hair meant letting go of a piece of me. I decided to do the wise youth ministry thing and sell raffle tickets for the privilege of being the one to shave my head publicly at church. I had done things like kissing a fish to raise money before, so this was no big thing. Still, it was only in the letting go that I found my way into a new understanding of my disease. You see, shaving my head in a community setting, my faith community, reminded me that my family and I were not alone in our walk with cancer.

Can cancer be thought of as a communal event? Can we think about cancer as a communal, theological event? I'd argue yes! (And... no) That's a terribly Lutheran response, I realize this, but stay with me for an explanation. Yes because the very point of being in community is the mutual care and concern we share with each other. 

I found that while going through chemo treatments, the same type and duration as our friend Jake, my greatest supporters were found in community. Community took different forms for me. There was the community of family and close friends. There was the community of faith found in the congregation to which I belonged. And there was the community of doctors, nurses, technicians and other patients I found during treatment at Gulfcoast Oncology in St. Petersburg, FL (shout out to Dr. Knipe!). Each of these communities walked with me in my healing and in my faith. Each strengthened me in a different way.

I experienced community as family and close friends sat with me in the hospital, doctors offices, and when I could do nothing but sit in silence as they sat with me. My wife became my strength infused by God’s presence to comfort me when I was sick to my stomach of being poked and prodded and stuck with needles. She held me as a surrogate for Christ and gave me hope for a day when we would be finished with cancer. Friends like Erik Mathre laughed with me and even made fun of me (in a good way) to reassure me that I was still normal.

I experienced community through my church as we gathered as God’s people around a call to worship and praise God together. Worship was central to our identity and I cherished being a part of these worship gatherings each week. In this gathering of Christ followers I raised my voice in thanksgiving most weeks, in outrage some weeks. Still, I was surrounded by people who loved and supported me and that gave me strength for the healing journey.

I have enjoyed watching Jake and his wife buying treats for the medical staff before going in for treatment. My wife and I did the same thing! Lutherans and food, what can I say? Is it possible to experience a community, theologically speaking, in the form of doctors, nurses, technicians, and other patients. Yes! I experienced Christ’s hands and feet moving around me during treatments and subsequent visits for fluids and other medications. My physical healing met with emotional and spiritual healing in what could have been a church adorned with IV stands and blood pressure cuffs. I shared in mutual consolation with the other worship attendees, each in their own pew (or treatment chair) and each with a story to share.

Can cancer and communal theology always stand up? No, because not everyone in our communities will be willing to enter into the conversation or journey as it unfolds. I watched other patients around me give up. I watched as they succumbed to the disease for a variety of reasons without any desire to talk to me or caregivers. I watched as families and friends reached out to these patients only to be rejected with a rude rebuff or silence. Still, I suppose even the ones who sit in silent anger or surrender as well as the ones they dismiss live in a kind of community together anyway.

I found another line form Nadia’s sermon helpful here. "When someone says something so vapidly optimistic to you, it's really about them, it's about the fact that they simply cannot allow themselves to entertain the finality and pain of death, so instead they turn it into a Precious Moments greeting card."

I think that’s what is behind most of the unfortunate expressions of consolation offered by our human brothers and sisters created in God’s image. People don’t say these things to intentionally dismiss the pain and suffering of the one with cancer. They don’t say these things truly inspired by God to provide comfort (or at least that’s what I think). They say them because that’s what they’ve heard others say or because they’re own defense mechanisms and rationalizations lead them to say them.

Jake asked his guest bloggers to provide alternatives to the cliche sayings too often uttered. As the blog series has progressed I’ve read some great options, including a take on one of my favorite lines as a pastor of three years. "That sucks." But, since that one has been addressed, more or less, I can share one of the most valuable things I heard during my illness. "I care about you. How can I pray for you?"

In community we often pray for others, for the sick and dying, for the suffering, for our world, for our church. The most powerful memory for me was that another person would care enough to ask me, ask me specifically, what it was I needed them to pray for on my behalf.

The best community experiences are shared around life's events, around our stories, and when we care enough to pray intentionally for one another.

Paul AmlinPaul Amlin is a former professional lay youth worker and currently serves as a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Marion, IA. Paul has a passion for finding creative ways to walk with people into discipleship in Christ, and believes in finding the intersection between creative worship, music, and education to create interesting if not unique ways of drawing people into 'being church' today. He is a survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma.

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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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Carol Howard Merritt on Cancer Theology

May 7, 2012 · 1 comment

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.

Our family is moving. As we pack up our stuff, making sure that each item is securely packaged, I’m also shifting things inside myself. My husband is going to start a new church. For the first time in fourteen years, I will not be a pastor serving a particular congregation.

As I sorted through this transition, my daughter asked why I loved being a pastor so much. I thought about my job and a list of duties ran through my head. It was not the business meetings, volunteer arm-twisting, or endless emails that made me satisfied at the end of a long day. I enjoyed preaching and teaching, but when I imagined what I loved, the first thing that came mind was that invitation to a person's side during those sacred moments.

"I'm with people in the most difficult times of their lives," I answered. "I pray with them and try to remind them that God is with them." I remembered the days of sitting beside a hospital bed, holding hands, praying the Psalms, and eventually standing over a person as they journeyed over from life to death. The experience always transformed us — both of us. When we understood our mortality, that feeling of absolute dependence grew and we learned something about God.

As I moved the boxes up to the attic, I was thankful for our sturdy, climate controlled, weather-proofed home. We lived here for almost seven years. When it was cold, we stayed warm. When it rained, we remained dry. When it was hot, I turned on the air conditioner. Even when a hurricane hit last year, the only destruction the storm could manage was blowing off a bit of side trim.

Most of us have houses that keep us separated from the outside elements. Many of us have jobs in offices with air conditioning and heat. Usually, we drive from our homes to work with regulated temperatures in our cars.

In the history of the world, have we ever done such a superb job controlling our environment? I don’t mean the larger environment — that is terribly out-of-whack. I just mean those tiny, dry, 73 degree bubbles in which we work and live — the rooms that are full of the humming of computers, the buzzing of lightbulbs, and the whispers from air-blowing vents.

I wonder if that particular, personal comfort is a small part of why there is a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward religious beliefs in our country. Think about it. If it stormed and we felt the brutality of wind and soak, if our food source came directly from the soil in our own fields, and if a water shortage meant nothing to drink, I imagine we would pray a bit more. Instead, we find shelter, go to the grocery store, and turn on a faucet.

In short, we’re out of touch with our own mortality. We pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," when our real supplication may be "God, help me to stay on this diet." When we come face-to-face with our human frailty, we tend to learn something about the nature of God. As it is, many of us do not feel that absolute dependence.

This Atlantic Monthly article says that when we become more aware of the end of our lives, we long to become a part of something larger than ourselves. I have certainly seen that happen. I appreciate this analysis, and yet it tends to reduce religion to a Terror Management tool. Religion becomes one of those moving boxes, a place where we can enfold our fears in order to get them out of the way. Terror Management Theory does not convey the flood peace and strength that the presence of God can give in these times of waiting beside the bed.

Usually, I sit with people who have cancer. Cancer creeps into the sturdiest of homes and even when we are dry and seventy-three degrees, it reminds us of our mortality. If we live long enough, most of us will have an irregular tumor, lump in the breast, blood in our urine, or another tell-tale sign of cancer’s effect. Cancer can leave us with fear and desperation. It can cut lives much too short. Other times, we become inspired by the great resilience of people who beat the odds. We want to grasp on to life with all of its abundance, extracting meaning from each moment.

In all of it, we understand the depth of what Friedrich Schleiermacher called the "feeling of absolute dependence." We become fully aware that it is in God that we live and move and have our being. Schleiermacher is considered to be the father of liberal Christian theology; however, I think he has had a considerable, unwitting impact on evangelical theology as well. (The "feeling of absolute dependence" sounds a lot like the "God-shaped vacuum" to me.) His work impacts us all.

As our lives move and shift, as we sort out the importance of who we are, as we gain perspective on our days, and as we struggle with something as profound as cancer, may we always be aware of our absolute dependence.

Carol Howard MerrittCarol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Reframing Hope and Tribal Church. She blogs at TribalChurch.org, which is hosted by the Christian Century and she cohosts God Complex Radio with Derrick Weston.

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Andy Root on Cancer Theology

April 30, 2012 · 4 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.

Warning: I'm going to start crassly and swear in this post... so if you don't like that kind of thing, do something else on the internet.

Jake asked specifically to NOT address his cancer in this post, so I won't, rather I'll do what I’ve tried to do with all my own theological work: I'll try to seek for God by addressing my own existential issues with this demon called cancer.

But to do that I first need to reference Jake one more time, before completely taking the spotlight off him and placing it on my borderline narcissistic self, (which I suspect many of the rest of you share with me, and talking about terminal diseases exposes it in us all). I say this as much as a confession as anything else, so here it is...

When I found out Jake had cancer I had two EQUAL emotions that moved into direct contemplation. First, I thought, Damn! poor Jake, how awful! This really, really sucks for him. I even prayed, Lord, have mercy.

But almost with the same intensity that I thought this, pretty much simultaneously, I found myself also thinking, Better him than me!

I know it sounds harsh; I know it makes me a true a-hole. But, it is cancer! There is little else in the world that I fear as much.

Then, like branches from a tree, the second emotion led to two reactions. Hearing it was Jake and not me, I felt both relief and dread at the same time. I felt relief that again somehow I had avoided the odds, missing out, at least for a few more days, on the arrival of the dark demon named cancer. But that relief was contaminated by another feeling: dread. I knew that if Jake could get it, then this demon was certainly real, and no made-up boogie man.

Life really is the linking of experiences and emotions into some kind of frayed but mystically-whole narrative. Our lives are stories that propel us from one plotline to another, building on themselves as they go.

The thing I hate about cancer, truly the thing that takes my breath away in fear, is how it appears, how it seems to bite like a shark, when you least expect it. Your life is going along just fine, as you bob in the turquoise water of your beach vacation, right there in the middle of your life, bang! you’re told it is in peril, the turquoise water turns red as the dead-eyed beast grabs your leg, as cancer takes its hold, thanks to the sterile emotion-less diagnosis of an overworked doctor.

It is the interruption, like teeth penetrating skin sinking to bone, it is the taking of your life’s unfolding and the beating it with a baseball bat that seems so terrible. Even in films, when it happen, when cancer is diagnosed, when it strikes, I'm sent existential. I'm man enough to admit it, I guess, even when I watched Stepmom, when Susan Sarandon’s character got cancer, I cried like a four year old with a bloody skinned knee. I cried because of the interruption, the way that cancer sought to steal her time with her children, to take from them the love of their mother. Cancer is an interruption that divides and separates. That’s why it is a demon; it is the work of demons to divide and separate, to interrupt so that they can steal.

One of my earliest memories was the dividing and separating that cancer, the demon, does. My first friend Benjamin, when we were both four years old, was struck with cancer, and dead months later. At four I watched it interrupt everything, stopping, like a car hitting a cement wall, the unfolding life of a child. I watched the shattering interruption as his parents dealt with the division and separation. And it all started so unassumingly, just with the spotting of a lump under the armpit of a child at bath; and then, then a test, then another, then the words of a doctor telling you that your unfolding life is fucked. And then months later the same doctor says that the interruption will win, that a little boy must be taken by the demon and his body put in that so unnaturally small casket and sent to nothingness.

I hate and fear cancer because of the interruption it brings, because it comes right out of the clear blue sky, blinding you to your future, taking you from love, from otherness, from the embrace we need to be human. Taking you from your very body, stripping you of hair and weight as it cages you in an insatiable concentration camp of violent interruption.

But not only cancer, not only do demons interrupt. So too does the act of God. So too comes God out of the clear blue sky to change all things. Saul's life is unfolding, he is firmly on the trajectory that his life has led him to, a Jew of Jews, circumcised on the eighth day as a member of the tribe of Benjamin. But then, he is struck, he is encountered and all is interrupted.

But this interruption does not act in the shadows with no name, as the demon cancer does, not as the statement of disease, not to divide and separate. Rather, this act of God's interruption comes in the encounter of personhood. It is I, Jesus, whom you persecute. He is the one, the person, to interrupt. And in this person, in the personal interruption, Saul is transformed (an interruption that moves from death to life). Saul becomes Paul; for Paul is not divided or separated but interrupted to be given to others. Paul is interrupted to be given union, to be found "in Christ."

The hope of the gospel, the hope for all those with cancer like Jake, or scared to death of it, like me, is that this God of Jesus Christ is a God that will stand in the breach. This God is given to us, to be person for us, so that He might overcome all division and separation, so that all demons may be cast out, and all that separated may be overcome in love, mercy, and wholeness. This God gives us Godself, so that the dying of our lives might be interrupted by the new life of a coming eschaton, of a new reality, made so in resurrection.

It is only a vision of a crucified God, a resurrected God that calls us to His person. It is I, Jesus! gives me hope that even if the demon comes, even if it is tomorrow, interrupting everything in my life, keeping me from embracing my children, from years with my wife, taking my life, that I will still live. For though the demon may kill me, my life is hidden in the love of the Father to the Son. A love that knows, that embraces, and indwells death, so that it has no more power to finally and completely separate and divided.

So I say to you cancer, “Fuck off, for my life is in Jesus, and though I am too weak and too scared to face you, my God has faced you down, being broken for me, and in so doing overcoming you by bearing you, so that your work of breaking has no power over me. I trust this as an act of faith... but still, just as much as an act of faith, I admit it, I’m still fucking scared.”

Andy RootAndrew Root, PhD (Princeton Theological Seminary) is in Olson Baalson chair as Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He is the author of The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry (with Kenda Creasy Dean, IVP, 2011), The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being (Baker Academic, 2010), Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation (IVP, 2007) and Relationships Unfiltered (Zondervan/YS, 2009).

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Kester Brewin on Cancer Theology

April 16, 2012 · 4 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.

First, I want to thank Jake for inviting me to post on this blog series — a huge honour, and a theme that, well — who can hope to do justice to this? All I have are some thoughts from the raw edge... I've read the other posts with great interest, yet I'm so aware that it's at times like this that theology simply runs out on us, because, as Mike put it so well: "Shit happens. There is no reason for it, no necessary cause."

I like that angle from Job. Slavoj Žižek, the Marxist atheist philosopher and cultural commentator, who can't seem to keep his mitts away from Christian themes, commented in his book Violence:

"After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities. When God finally appears, he affirms Job’s position against the theological defenders of the faith."1

Cancer cannot be sanctified. There is no sacrament in it. And to try is to move away from God, sat by Job's side, who mourns in agreement that it is, quite simply, meaningless. It happens, and it's not good. The divine act here is not theology — words about God — but theopraxis. And the theopraxis of cancer appears to be quite simple. How do I know? Because though I don't know Jake well, a very close friend of mine is currently dying of cancer of the liver. It's highly unlikely that he'll survive. It sucks. But I've learned something about theopraxis:

  1. Don't get in touch and say "I'm praying for you." Not unless you've cooked a meal, taken the kids out, paid a hospital visit or just sat and been present.
  2. Jokes are still funny. And some dark jokes are still very funny.
  3. Don't say God has a plan for this. He doesn't.
  4. But, in fact, good things can happen. Like cutting through all the crap that built up around a friendship, and realising just how special someone is.
  5. Repent of the fact that it took cancer to cut through this crap, because it shouldn't have done.
  6. Cancer is something that grows out of control, but it needn't be the topic of every conversation. Football still matters, and so does art.

While taking a walk with this friend, we fell to talking about whether it was worth praying for a miracle. My thought was this: Unless you are a hard-core materialist, and, in effect, believe that everything in our lives is determined already by the way the quarks lined up at the Big Bang, then you have to allow for the possibility that "this is not it." That there is something else that can happen. And I suppose praying for a miracle is not beating yourself in cries for God to heal, but simply protecting that flame within that lets hope survive, and that refuses to believe that all the options are closed.

Cancer itself has no meaning, but in its meaninglessness it can draw us together to reevaluate our priorities. And, for me, one that keeps popping up is that of our seemingly uncontrolled consumption. Cancer is often a disease of uncontrolled growth. Dis-ease. It's something out of joint, something gone wrong with checks and balances in a system. I hope it's not trite to highlight the parallels with the economic systems that worship ever-increasing rates of growth — consuming our earth's resources at unsustainable rates, bloating some parts of this world, while others wither.

Facing up to the reality of cancer in a young contemporary has, in a way, pushed me to reflect on the way I lead my own life. Healthy choices — for me and the planet around me. Living lightly, and not going for uncontrolled growth. These are tough issues for a consumer culture that loves having more. But something is out of joint. There is dis-ease. Things are not in balance. This isn't to say that cancer is some kind of divine punishment for a wrong lifestyle: Cancer is truly meaningless. It happens. But the hope within our faith is that we can draw meaning out of what is meaningless, through the theopraxis of learning to love one another better — and that, in the global scheme of things, means living for the good of everyone, whether they be Foxconn workers or Syrian asylum seekers — or friends who are suffering.

Here's the irony: Words explaining that words are not where it's at. So enough already, log off now, and, if you can, just quietly, do.

Kester BrewinKester Brewin teaches mathematics in London, and is also a freelance writer and blogger. His two books Signs of Emergence and Other are both available worldwide and have been hailed as some of the best writing to have come out of the emerging theology movement. He is currently finishing a book on pirates, and putting the finishing touches to a novel.

  1. Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. 179. []

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