Before you read this post, if you commented on the original post about having cancer and moving to London, I finally had the chance to reply. Click here and go to comments to read my responses to your lovely prayers and good wishes.
The other afternoon, the Associate Pastor of my new church came rushing into my office. “I have to show you something!” Stepping to the window, she pointed to a man in the park next door. Wearing a full tuxedo, top hat and tails, he sat atop a speaker, holding a tuba on his lap.
As he began to play along to the oompah music blaring from the speaker between his legs, fire began to shoot out the top of the tuba. With each puff of sound, there also arose a puff of fire, spewing from the top of the horn.
It was street performance at its finest, and a crowd soon formed. My colleague explained that he frequents this corner, and he has become, for her, a treasured part of the London landscape. After sharing her delight, she went back to her office to get back to work.
Not me. I’m like, “OMG, he’s got fire coming out of his tuba! It’s amazing! How does he do that? I’ve gotta stop everything and get outside and take a picture!” Because, really, what in my life and work at that minute could outdo a Flaming Tuba Guy?
I’m sure, as the weeks pass, he will fade into the background. The day will come when I also get annoyed that I can’t concentrate over the sound of the oompah music, or can’t pass the sidewalk because of the crowd. That first day, however, I had to stop everything and get a closer look, to pay attention and marvel at the spectacle of the Flaming Tuba Guy outside my office window.
As I contemplated Flaming Tuba Guy on my way home, I realized how much my breast cancer diagnosis is like Flaming Tuba Guy.
When it first happened six weeks ago, I felt like everything stopped. I couldn’t think about anything else, see anything else, do anything else except imagine myself as a cancer patient. Everything in the world shrunk down to a small hospital room, a blurry gray image on the screen, and pink ribbons everywhere. I stopped in my tracks, and so did all of you—my friends and family and community—to grapple with this unexpected thing confronting me.
As time has passed, along with more tests and doctor visits and procedures, breast cancer is slowly becoming just another part of the wider landscape. Some days, it’s there, and a big part of my life. Last Monday, I had a minor surgery (sentinel node biopsy), just 9 days after entering the country and three days after starting my new job. I spent a 14-hour day at the hospital, and the next day in bed recovering. Even then, I had lots of time to sit and wait, and I did some reading and planning for church.
Some days, it’s like the crowd in the street or the annoying earworm. By Wednesday after my surgery, I could spend most of the day doing what I love: ministry and motherhood. I had to juggle my schedule for a doctor’s appointment, deal with not wearing deodorant due to my incision, and get help lifting heavy objects for two weeks while I heal. Those things are annoyances, but nothing that stops my daily living.
Other days, it’s not a factor in my decision-making at all. By the weekend, I felt pretty good, and we took the chance of my good health and London’s rare good summer weather to explore the city. We spent the afternoon on Hampstead Heath, including climbing all the way to the top of Parliament Hill. On Sunday after church, we explored Oxford Street and Regent Streets, a major shopping area. Regent Street was closed to traffic, and there was music playing and thousands of people packing the streets because Magnum was handing out free ice cream. We explored the amazing Hamley’s Toy Store, which is the best I’ve ever seen. Other than the lack of deodorant, it was a cancer-free day.
While I know that the coming regimen of chemotherapy will make for more rough days ahead, I’m taking comfort in the claim that cancer is going to be like Flaming Tuba Guy. It’s gonna stop me, distract me, captivate me sometimes, because it’s breast cancer, for goodness sake. But not every day. Not all the time. It will be a part of my London landscape, but not all of it.
Thanks, Flaming Tuba Guy. Oompah on, my friend.
I’ve been moving so fast in the whirlwind of a new job, new home, new country that I’m out of breath.
I’ve been so overwhelmed by your words of encouragement, prayer, scripture and support that your love leaves me breathless.
I’ve been surprised by coincidental meetings with strangers and old friends that make me catch my breath.
I’ve felt God’s Spirit so strong and reassuring since I arrived in London that it takes my breath away.
Each of those breathless things has a story (or several) that need telling, but I’m too much in the moment right now. I will write when I am able.
We arrived in London on Saturday afternoon, too late to get to the clinic to register for the National Health Service. Instead I went first thing Monday morning, registered in 30 minutes and got an appointment a couple hours later, followed by a referral on Tuesday. I see the surgeon at the University College of London Hospital first thing tomorrow morning (Thursday). I hope to know more about my treatment plan after that appointment, though it may take a little longer for them to review all the records and films I brought from my doctors in the U.S. Even so, I thought it would take me three weeks to get this far–and it’s only taken four days!
I want so much to respond to each one of you who wrote me–blog comments, Facebook messages, e-mails and all the rest. I will, eventually. Your words are so thoughtful and they have blessed me so much. Special thanks to all who sent scriptures or quotations. I feel the need to surround myself with their wisdom and blessing, so I stopped at the stationer’s today to buy markers and colored paper. I plan to write down each gem, cut it out, and hang it on the wall as a source of inspiration in the coming months.
The folks at the American International Church have provided a warm welcome. We had no idea how complicated life could be moving to another country! Everything from shopping to banking to cell phones to turning on the oven requires explanation and support to accomplish. The staff and leaders at AIC have anticipated our every concern and they have been one step ahead of us, so that whatever we need is at hand when we need it. My predecessor at AIC described it as “taking a sip from a firehose,” and he was right. Yet every new bit I learn gets me more excited about life in London and especially about the ministry ahead at AIC. What an amazing place–and what a witness they have to offer to London at this moment in history.
We have all been going non-stop since we arrived, but without a sense of panic or burden. I’m so eager to get to both tasks and treatments that I look forward to each day’s fullness. I don’t feel anxious about all the newness, the list of things to do, the treatments and the move (our stuff arrives Friday), because it all feels so very good and so very much God’s. I feel overwhelmed, but only by how blessed I feel to be here, how beloved I feel by all of you, and how grateful I feel to God.
Thank you, friends. Thank you, God.
You may have noticed that things have been pretty quiet on my blog in the last several months. I have barely had time to read, much less write, but now I need to use this space to tell my story again–a very new and different story than I had planned.
Here’s the short version: In the time between leaving one pastorate and moving to a new one in London, I have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment will be tough, but it has an excellent chance of success, so we are facing forward in faith.
A quick catch-up for any blog readers who are not also my friends on Facebook or in real life: In January, I was called to serve as the next Senior Pastor of the American International Church in London. The months since have been a blur of selling our home, applying for visas, preparing for an international move, and saying goodbye to the beloved church I served in southern Indiana for the last 10 years. I completed my work there in early June, and I will be starting my new position in London on July 15.
Now the cancer story (so far), for those who already know the London part:
On Saturday night June 4, I jumped in the shower after a long day of Little League baseball, on my way to Relay for Life, and I discovered a lump in my breast. The next day was my last Sunday at St. Luke’s, an emotional day saying goodbye to a congregation of people I have served and loved for more than 10 years. I saw my GP on Tuesday (6/7), who referred me for a mammogram and ultrasound on Thursday (6/9). I completed my last day as pastor of St. Luke’s, carried the last load of my belongings to my car, took a photo of my empty office, posted it on Facebook, shut the door for the last time, then drove to my mammogram and ultrasound appointment. They said immediately that it did not look good, and I knew in my heart that they were right.
The next morning, Friday, the movers came to pack our belongings and send them to London. As the last boxes were being loaded, I got the call that a biopsy was needed. The biopsy happened the next Tuesday (6/14), and I chose a surgical biopsy for a more thorough pathology. I had two days of recovery at home. They called on Thursday (6/16) to let me know it was malignant.
All plans were put on hold while we waited to hear what the treatment plan and prognosis would be, after the full pathology came in. These were scary days, yet one thing was certain in my mind: we were still going to London. Our future lies there, and my call is to the American International Church is the clearest thing I have known in prayer in a long time. I was not certain that God would preserve my life, but I was confident that there was still a call and work to do. I spoke to the chair of the Personnel Committee in London, and he was shocked, but supportive. He agreed that they still wanted me to come, and would do everything they could to be flexible and make that possible.
In the meantime, the surgeon and her staff were doing everything they could to get me all the testing and information they could, knowing I am supposed to be leaving the country. We had anticipated delaying departure to have surgery here, then going to London for further treatment. I spent nearly every day at the hospital for 2-3 hours having different tests. Then, thanks to my son’s success making the All Star Team, we spent every night at a baseball game. It was the perfect distraction, and provided “cover” to explain why we had not yet left town.
When I finally met with the surgeon on Friday, 6/24, the news was good. There is no evidence the cancer has spread beyond the one lump (including no evidence of presence in any lymph nodes). The cancer I have is very aggressive (which is a given, since I am under 50), but it is also very responsive to chemotherapy. Consequently, chemo becomes the first line of treatment (4-6 months), followed by surgery and then possible radiation. One year from now, I have every reason to believe that cancer will be behind me.
With this news in hand, all plans changed again. Rather than delaying our departure, we moved it up by a week, so that I can begin treatment as soon as possible. We scrambled to sell our cars and remaining furniture (which we had left, thinking I would be convalescing in our home after surgery), then took off for Virginia Beach to visit family. We arrived last Wednesday, and have been running from one set of family to another ever since. We fly to London this Friday, July 8, the first day our visas allow, so I can see an oncologist as soon as possible.
The people of the American International Church have been compassionate, kind and supportive in every way. They share my sense that our future is still together, and we have agreed to take this journey together. The Brexit vote and its aftermath have already created much uncertainty there, so we will have many tough things to navigate together in the next year. While this is not at all how we planned to begin our time in ministry, my doctor believes I should be able to serve faithfully during my treatment, although I will need some flexibility and extra time to get well. Thankfully, I have no symptoms at all at this time, and I feel great. I will keep feeling good until the chemo begins to wear me down.
While there is no good time to get cancer, this one does really suck.My husband and I have both left our jobs, our house is on the market to sell, our belongings are on their way to a new country, and we have nothing here but three suitcases and my son’s bag of baseball gear. The only direction is forward. Since the first days of this journey, I have been hearing the words of one of my mentors from Old South, the late Rev. Carl Schultz: “Faith faces forward.” While I have moments of fears and tears, the more I pray, the more I feel like my feet are on the ground and my heart is light, because my sense of call and faith all point me forward–to London, to healing, to ministry, to a new life. There will be much more to let go of (like my hair!), but I feel like God is right here in this with me, no matter what.
I have a lot more to write and say and share about everything that has already happened, and everything that is still happening, but I have not had time or space to do so in the whirlwind. I plan to use Facebook to post updates, and this blog to write more in depth about this experience. I have stories to share already, once we get to London and I can have a little bit of space to write them down.
You all are a kind and lovely group, and may want to know if you can help somehow. You can. First, pray for me. For healing and strength and courage, for my family, for the church, for our transition and all the rest. Then, write to me. Send comments and messages, here or on Facebook, with words of encouragement, humor, scripture, and stories of survivors you know. If your prayers present you an image or phrase or scripture for me, I would welcome hearing about it. I may not be able to respond as quickly as I hope, but I will read and your words will help keep me going strong.
In the meantime, I’m determined to face forward in faith.
Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace by Nora Gallagher, Vintage Books, 2003, 216 pp.
I don’t remember where I first heard about Nora Gallagher, but I immediately resonated with what I heard and wanted to read more. I bought this book thinking it would be an inspiration for an Easter sermon on a similar theme, but I didn’t get around to starting it until nearly Pentecost. When I did, I discovered it was not only just the right book at the right time, it is a book on one of my favorite topics: vocation, discernment and call. I read everything I find on that topic, and I found this one without even knowing that was the subject.
Practicing Resurrection is a memoir about Nora Gallagher’s journey of discernment about her call to ministry. She is an active leader in an Episcopal church, and feels a tug to something more. The story begins with the death of her brother, walks through meetings of a discernment committee, processes her experiences as a student minister, and concludes with a clear call to ministry–though whether that involves ordination into the priesthood remains a mystery.
Gallagher’s prose is gorgeous, and it spoke straight to my soul. Her way of framing the stories of her journey in the language of Spirit and discernment alternatively gave voice and substance to my own thoughts and took me to new places. My copy of the book is full of highlights and passages to which I hope to returned (or have returned and quoted already).
Here is just a sampling of the many passages I want to go over again and again:
The life of faith was amorphous, ephemeral, a glimpse, a moment. Trusting it was like my early swimming lessons in learning how to float. (3)
“Often we are afraid to ask for what we want or desire,” said Carr Holland, “But the way of discernment is to lay out our desire and then come back to it with openness, seeking the wisdom of examination. Is this a need? Is there a deeper need? Is your reign foreshadowed here?” (4)
On discerning call, quoting her priest Mark: “It’s not usually something that is immediately known, as if you would have a vision or something and that would be the end of it. We are all becoming what we are called to be. … One thing: a priest must love herself.” (16)
The priest in liturgy should help point the community in the direction of God, and keep the liturgy alive rather than make it a museum piece. What gives it legitimacy is the trust relationship that is built with the community and what the community invests in it. Then, in some objective way, God, who is always present, becomes more and more transparent.” (20)
Part of this process, I assure you, will be the dismantling of that carefully constructed person. … The Holy Spirit, I began to see, was relentless, but she was not mean. … Discernment, I came to see, was about looking everywhere for traces of God. (96-97)
Gallagher has a gift for telling a good story, one that is unique and personal and specific, and then asking the question or naming the issue in such a way you realize that the story is in fact universal. I will be seeking out more of her writing, and I look forward to reading this one over again in the future.
Preaching from Memory to Hope by Thomas G. Long, Westminster John Knox, 2009, 152 pp.
This book made me want to read more books about preaching. It’s something I do every week, and I read lots of books that give me ideas about what to say when I preach. This book, however, is more about what happens when we preach, not what we say in any given week.
Long begins with a critique of narrative preaching, the style of story-based preaching that has become dominant in the last 30 years. Narrative preaching arose in response to a culture that knew its way around Christian doctrine and dogma, but felt bored and stilted in its heart. Grasping on to the stories at the heart of the Gospel was a way to get to the heart of listeners and move them. Now, however, Long points out that our context has changed.
We no longer live in a sleeping Christendom waiting only to be aroused and delighted by evocative stories. The culture has shifted, and we need to take up with purpose Augustine’s two other terms: teaching and ethical speech. (18)
Quickly, Long goes on to point out that narrative is not irrelevant, but its purpose is targeted and specific:
Narrative is not a rhetorical device to titillate bored listeners What we are doing, first of all, is dress rehearsing in the pulpit a competence expected of every Christian, the capacity to make theological sense out of the events and experiences of our lives. (18)
He goes so far as to label overly simplistic, canned “preacher stories” as unethical in their response to the depth and complexity of faith in real life. (20)
In the second chapter, Long claims that preaching ought to model the complex conversation that happens between serious disciples and the world around them. Preaching becomes testimony, speaking to the places where God is alive and at work in the world around us. Too often, preachers today do not speak as though God really is alive and at work among them. Long tells the story of Martin Luther’s fear and trembling at the obligation to represent the gospel, and quotes Karl Barth:
What are you doing, you [human being], with the Word of God upon your lips? Upon what grounds do you assume the role of mediator between heaven and earthy? Who has authorized you to take your place there and to generate religious feeling? (35)
Preaching is not an explanation, it is an event. Something happens when we preach, and the Word is broken open and God is made present in the act of sharing it. “Preaching involves looking through the lenses of biblical texts to discover and then to announce present-tense manifestations of God in the experience of hearers.” (44)
The third chapter levels a striking, searing critique against a new form of Gnosticism arising today. Long identifies four traits of Gnosticism as 1) believing that knowledge saves; 2) antipathy toward incarnation and embodiment; 3) focus on inner divine spark; and 4) emphasis on present spiritual reality rather than God’s promised fulfillment. He sees this gnosticism holding a special appeal to intelligent people, and taking shape through both those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” and among those who ascribe to conspiracy theories about Christian history, such as those found in the books of Bart Ehrmann and Elaine Pagels. The fourth chapter turns this critique of gnosticism against one of the most beloved of the populist, critical scholars: Marcus Borg. His contention that Borg’s ideas are full of gnostic thought is thorough and convincing.
Long points the way forward, calling for “preaching in the future-perfect tense,” preaching that is centered in eschatalogical hope. He writes:
Like the risen Christ himself, preaching is a word from God’s future embarrassingly and disturbingly thrust into the present, announcing the freedom in a time of captivity, the gift of peace to a world of conflict, and joy even as the lamenting continues. (124)
I think Long is on the right track. He gave clarity and voice to many of the things I strive for in my own preaching, and questions that have lingered, unexpressed, in the back of my mind. I encourage all my fellow preachers to hear his concerns, even if you do not accept them.
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, Exploring God’s Radical Notion that Women are People, Too by Sarah Bessey, Howard Books, 2013, 235 pp.
This book was chosen for a UCC clergy book group in which I participate, and I was very disappointed in this book as a choice for that group. We have been a church ordaining women and embracing feminism for 150 years, and this book seemed far too basic for our conversation. Bessey’s argument is about why women should be included in church leadership–a debate we are no longer having.
I am trying to separate my frustration with the choice of this book for that group and my feelings about the book itself, which are not nearly as negative. There are still far too many places in the church where women are not understood to be equally created in the image of God and qualified for spiritual leadership. There are countless women who are silenced, by their churches, by this theology, and by themselves. Bessey’s book speaks faithfully and well to those audiences, especially to those who find themselves with a hopeful suspicion that Jesus actually welcomes women to live up to their full spiritual leadership.
Bessey is a poetic writer, and her book is all heart. Her heart is beautiful, beckoning, pleading with the heart of her readers to be moved to open themselves to God’s plans for women in a more expansive way. This is lovely. She says things like, “Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity.” (14) She offers spiritual insights like these:
Let’s be done lobbying for a seat at the Table. I want to be outside with the misfits, with the rebels, the dreamers, second-chance givers, the radical grace lavishers, the ones with arms wide open, the courageously vulnerable, and among even–or maybe especially–the ones rejected by the Table as not worthy enough or right enough. (4)
That’s the thing when we say yes to God–it’s not about that one yes. Our one yes keeps resounding and spreading, like ripples in a pond after a pebble is thrown into it, until the yes of God and the yes of our hearts and the yes of Jesus’ love and the yes of us all sweep over the world. (149)
On losing her faith:
I hold almost all of it loosely in my hand now, all of it but this: the nature, identity, soul, action, and character of God is love–lovelovelovelovelovelovelove. Everything was resurrected on that truth. (50)
However, as a reader I needed more “head” to go with the heart, more substance and scholarship to make her case. Bessey’s understanding of the issues showed little or no research or understanding of biblical scholarship, and especially feminist biblical criticism. I have spent much of my adult life immersed in Christian feminist scholarship, and her book’s ignorance of these conversations was frustrating in every way. She presented ideas and concepts about Jesus, Paul and their attitudes toward women that have been explored in depth for more than 30 years–yet she talks as though she just found them herself in the scripture. While she may indeed have come up with them on her own, her versions lack the depth and perspective of so many ongoing conversations. I wish she had done just a little more homework, to discover that such a world even existed–she writes as though these are new ideas, and they are not. They are shallow, oversimplified (and sometimes even discredited) ideas about the interpretation of scripture about women. She never even questions or critiques the use of exclusively male language about God.
That is a harsh critique, but it is not the end of my assessment of the book. Bessey’s book still matters, it still has a place, it still fulfills a need, and I would still recommend it to certain readers in certain circumstances. Those just emerging from the closed world of conservative fundamentalism or evangelical Christianity will find a soul sister in Sarah Bessey. Women and men just beginning to question the hardened gender categories of biblical womanhood and pastoral leadership will find a handy introduction and invitation to open their hearts and minds a little wider.
I can imagine people to whom I would recommend this book, and to them it would be life-altering. However, that audience is small and targeted, and does not include the many of us who have already decided that women are to be fully integrated into the life and leadership of the church and have moved on to living it, doing it, and watching the consequences and changes women bring.
A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy, Alfred Knopf, 2013, 326 pp.
This is my first Maeve Binchy novel, though I know many who love her. There is an odd pattern between A Week in Winter and A Wedding in December, both about inns and innkeepers in winter, and both unfolding stories of multiple characters centering on their time spent together at the inn. The novels share more subtle similarities too–lovely writing, characters that are charming and entertaining but not gripping, a good story for beach reading (or a snow day!).
A Week in Winter centers on a small inn in the town of Stoneybridge on the west coast of Ireland. Chicky Starr, after years away in New York living what everyone assumed was a happily married life, has returned to Stoneybridge to renovate an old home into an inn, bringing experience running a boardinghouse. Everyone things she is crazy, because no one would want to visit Stoneybridge.
The first chapter belongs to Chicky’s story, and each subsequent chapter adds a new character to the week at the inn, unpacking the journey that got them to that one place and time together. The second and third chapters bring in the employees of the inn. Rigger is a troubled youth sent to family in Stoneybridge to hide out from his life in Dublin, and makes a life for himself there. Orla found success as a young, professional woman living the fancy life in the city, but could not find all she wanted there. She puts her business sense to use at the inn and finds hope.
The guests each get a chapter to tell their story as well. They include an unhappy schoolteacher who leaves soon after making everyone miserable, a movie star trying to escape attention and travel incognito, two young doctors who have been broken by seeing too much death, a mother and her potential daughter-in-law who do not like each other yet refuse to give up on the man they both love, a Swedish young man choosing between what he loves and what his family expects of him, a librarian troubled by visions of the future, and a couple who is disappointed that they won a contest’s second-prize trip to Stoneybridge instead of the first-place trip to Paris.
Each chapter is like a short story of its own, interwoven together by setting and integrating one another as secondary characters. The stories are charming, hopeful and endearing. I was reminded of Jan Karon’s Mitford series, which keeps everything nice. While the stories do approach life’s difficulties, they allude more than explore, and most characters find redemption. It’s a feel-good book all around, and I didn’t mind a bit.