I’ve certainly shared a bit about the Spring of 2013 when I was first diagnosed with (whisper voice) cancer, but I don’t believe I’ve shared much about the particular life circumstances of that time. A lot changed that April, obviously, but it had particular impact on the relationship that my wife and I had with our church community group. At that time, I was leading the group, and I will never forget sitting down with my friends and telling them of my diagnosis. Everyone was very comforting, but from the moment of my uttering the word (again, whisper voice) cancer, I could feel the heaviness of the situation. I could sense the gravity-like pull that my news had in the room. I had to step down from leading because of the need for surgery and treatment, so we were absent for most of the remaining meetings. But, community group came to an end that year, so it wasn’t as if we had left. But, when it started back the next fall, we didn’t return.
A year or so later, we finally attempted to rejoin a community group (a different one), but we found it difficult. Our attendance was sporadic, admittedly, which impeded our ability to form deep relationships, but the bigger issue, at least for me, was the time of prayer. I could feel the familiar gravity as the requests slowly circled the room and my turn drew near. I felt an uneasy combination of power and vulnerability in burdening the group with updates. It was is if the direness of my health issue was sucking from the group the significance of the trials of others. I may have imagined that, but when life-stories of others are qualified with, “But this is nothing compared to what you’re going through,” it’s not surprising that I began to feel uncomfortable and a distraction to these intimate friends doing life together.
So, we stopped attending a community group. We were too often unable to attend the weekly gatherings due to my treatment schedule and it was easier, though not necessarily right, to avoid the awkward “coffin in the room” feelings (see my previous post, “Elephant“) that those evenings produced.
Earlier this week, my office neighbor, Mark, leaned into my doorway and asked me why I hadn’t posted recently. Slightly surprised by his query, I asked him if he wanted a health update or more of my philosophical and spiritual ramblings. He replied that he wanted to know what was going on in my head. It was then that I recalled a photo, taken prior to hurricane Irma’s arrival, of Tampa Bay residents standing on sand that had only hours before been covered in water, Irma having sucked millions of gallons into its churning engine. The space between the men plays on the Tampa skyline in the background, and, clutching their phones, hands raised to the sky for photos of the impending fury from above, you sense they’re aware that something terrible is taking place somewhere and is coming for them but they’re unsure of what to do other than to document that they were there when it happened. And this describes how I feel right now. I’m at a place of treatment-mediated peace, and some other crisis has sucked the self-thoughts and self-feelings out of my head and heart, and I’m unsettled about what to do. Dear friends are suffering a category 5 crisis of greater power than I’ve honestly ever personally experienced. Are my texts, CaringBridge comments, and prayers enough?
Forty or so miles from my home, friends that I’ve known since high school are dealing with (raised voice now) childhood cancer (September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month). Their 16-year old daughter, Katie, was recently diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and dangerous cancer. It came upon her seemingly overnight, and she has undergone more harsh treatment and side effects in the past 6 months than I’ve experienced in the past 4 years. I’ve endured a steady grind with ups and downs, sure, but she’s suffering near constant physical and emotional duress in the short period since diagnosis and that will continue for the next several months until treatment is complete. And her parents. My friends. They have to watch. It hurts me so. We pray that the treatment will be the end of it. Cure.
Knowing what these friends are going through, I don’t feel comfortable talking about myself right now, let alone asking for prayer. I feel like a man standing on the soggy seabed with a “sick sense of peace” (thanks, Eric), realizing that not too distantly friends’ lives are in turmoil but also wary that the waters of my own troubles will return, perhaps in tsunami force. But, given my familiarity with guilt for being the unwitting winner of the crisis-comparison game, I am sure they must want to to be an active part of a community that serves and prays for one another, not live as objects of unreciprocated love.
(I have a CT scan on Monday. There, I said it.)
This past week we gathered with friends from our church for the kickoff of community group for the new year (following the school calendar). There was no Bible lesson that night and no prayer time, it was potluck and fellowship, and it was great. Relaxing. As we left our car and approached the host’s house, we heard the sound of children playing in the backyard. It was good music and brought back sweet memories. And it affirmed our motivation for joining this new group, with me as the eldest, I believe — to deepen relationships and come alongside friends as they live through the seasons of life with which Kim and I are now veterans, but also to have our hands on the oars of the small lifeboat in which Christ has placed us, to persevere with our brothers and sisters with Him should the seas get rough. And they will.
The satellite image taken during Irma’s assault on Florida shows also the slow approach of Jose and the formation of Maria in the east Atlantic. I imagine the players in a classic horror film — the pursued are in a panic to escape while the killer calmly, assuredly follows and nonetheless catches its victims unprepared. In this life, the storm is either raging in our homes, the homes of those we love, or it’s coming. Or all of that. Either way, we can’t ride the storm out alone. We’ve got to help each other.
Taking a word from Acts 22:21, the Lord says, “Go!” Sometimes that means hands and feet but other times it is timely encouragement. I know from my own experience the importance of texts, comments, and unbeknownst prayers because they are reminders of being loved and Loved. Whatever it looks like, there’s danger in being an awestruck bystander or trapped by one’s own circumstances. For the tides of darkness surge under powers outside of our control, mild and extreme, gravity and storm, and it threatens to overwhelm us. There is an ever-present urgent need to seek Higher Ground.