Grief is a strange thing. It obviously ranges in power, but it nonetheless can consume our subconscious thoughts. I can sense a bit of grief since I saw the doctor Thursday to follow up from the surgery.
While Kim and I both assumed that the mass that was removed from my small intestine during the surgery was in fact cancer, I held out a small hope that it would be found to be benign. The stubborn man in me refuses to accept that this battle with cancer is a lifetime challenge, and I sometimes dream that God will set me free; it’s a feeling I have, as if a series of perceived coincidences is pointing to something miraculous. But when I questioned the doctor about the pathology of the mass removed during surgery, he confirmed its malignancy–the same-old adenocarcinoma which is known to have spread and clearly continues to grow in various degrees undetected in my abdominal cavity.
As a man of faith, I wish I felt no grief over this. I tell myself that this life is a gift, that all is well, and even if this life is taken from me, I will enter into complete joy, and my family will be well provided for. In fact, beyond my understanding, if an early exit is my fate, I’m to believe that that is what is best for both my family and me. But this medicine still doesn’t go down easily, no matter how many spoonfuls of sugar.
I’m to the point where I want to shy away from sharing the anxiety that I still feel about trusting God’s plan. As I read Scripture, commentaries or famous works of theologians, the common theme is that a person of faith who truly trusts God will not be easily rocked by the storms of this life. Steadfastness. Certainty. Peace. As it says in Jeremiah 17 (NLT):
7 But blessed are those who trust in the LORD
and have made the LORD their hope and confidence.
8 They are like trees planted along a riverbank,
with roots that reach deep into the water.
Such trees are not bothered by the heat
or worried by long months of drought.
Their leaves stay green,
and they never stop producing fruit.
But I confess that I still struggle with this. Even as my mouth proclaims faith, and I may at times bear fruit, sometimes the slightest bit of wind can make me question all that I claim to believe and live by.
This morning as I feel myself grieving a little, I pictured my faith as a candle. I’m not trying to get all Bernie Taupin/Elton John on you, but the candle represents the vitality of my faith; I’m aware of it, I live by it, I trust that it illuminates my steps according to God’s perfect timing. It keeps me in the moment, prevents me from pretending like I know what the future holds, as if God would allow me to peek behind a curtain hiding His mysteries.
So what happened? I think I confused my idea of what is best for me with God’s will and thus mistook my unfounded expectation of surprisingly good news with the strength of the candle flame. I should know better by now, you’d think. But let me take you through it.
The candle burns bright as I walk almost triumphantly into the doctor’s office, sign in and take a seat next to Kim. But then I begin to see the world. Unnumbered, department store prints on the walls. Office chairs in odd arrangement, patients respecting the personal space of others spread about. Kim and I sit in the waiting room for almost an hour. As I’ve said before, I try to be a patient patient because, while waiting I assume that the doctors and medical staff are spending the necessary and appropriate time with other patients in need. During this time, Kim attempts to read or thumb through any and all magazines of interest in the waiting room, while I try to entertain myself on my phone, but I am unable to to keep my mouth shut from meaningless chatter. I know I am annoying her with my nervous energy. (Candle flickering?)
We are called into one of the clinic rooms, artificially lit by fluorescent lights. The nurse draws a fresh sheet of paper tightly over the top of the examination bed with a clinical flourish. There are two empty chairs, one for patient, another for a caretaker. The doctor will be with you in a moment. On a small cabinet are miscellaneous medical items: gauze, hand sanitizer, latex gloves, a blob of clear gel on blue medical paper, suspiciously lubricating in appearance (and which can remain undisturbed until the next patient, thank you very much), and a small, stainless steel device to be employed for the tortuous removal of staples from my surgical incisions. (What candle?)
On the wall is a poster that I’ve seen too many times in various clinics over the years: The Digestive System. I am powerless to resist its lure. Your liver and pancreas sit here. This little organ is your gallbladder, resting right under your liver. Under the liver is your stomach. This is what your small intestine looks like, sitting in the middle of your abdomen and resembling a heaping portion of uncut paccheri pasta–marvelous. Here is your large intestine as it runs left-to-right, up from your pelvis, around beneath your stomach, and down to your rectum. Aren’t you wonderfully made? Presumably. But this model is no longer representative of this man. (A breeze inside me stirs?)
Looking at the poster evokes memories of the time before the cancer diagnosis, followed by thoughts of the threatening cells growing in various places but whose locations I would be incapable of marking with red push-pins, and then I long for the peace of naiveté. I wonder what the model of my digestive system would look like, with all of the bowel resections and rearrangements and the spectre of yet undetected “masses” waiting for the right moment to shock and scare me. I picture the random, custom intricacies of a haunted house exposed by light. Except, of course, I remain in the dark. I once told Kim that I wanted to make a T-shirt that read, “Live like you don’t know.” She didn’t like this one bit. This isn’t living by faith. (Flame out?)
The consultation with the doctor is pleasant. I like him. There are smiles, there is comfort, but today’s visit is more about information and current status than it is about encouragement. And then we discussed the news of the pathology, the confirmation of adenocarcinoma, and the question of whether or not he removed all of it. Apparently, the pathology report contains conflicting information because of the way the doctor biopsied the samples. I think he assured me that he removed all the cancer, but I couldn’t shake the concern that maybe cancer will begin growing in my abdominal wall or the skin where Vesuvius once sat. (Black wick?)
The moment wasn’t strong, as I felt relatively unmoved, but this morning, feeling this grief, I realize that the appointment, with my focus of the worldly items in the room and the tinge of anxiety from my discussion with the doctor, must have been enough wind to snuff the flame of my candle. I wasn’t protecting it.
And now I picture it, with clear evidence that it was once lit, which should reassure me of God’s faithfulness to me over the years in ordinary and sometimes extraordinary ways, and yet, the remembrances aren’t enough to comfort me. I felt so confident the day before, so I imagine smoke rising from a recently extinguished flame, but I recognize that no amount of blowing on the burning ember at wick’s end will reignite it (these aren’t gag birthday candles that I’m describing). Left alone, the ember fades, leaving me in the dark.
So I’m very thankful there is another flame, one that is eternal and burning within my heart, that of the faith given me from God himself. As necessary, I can close my eyes, breathe slowly, pray, and picture a white flame piercing the blackest of dark. In whatever circumstance, it illuminates the likeness of Jesus himself, the Holy Spirit compelling me to remember Christ is with me, that He loves me and won’t abandon me and that God has been and will continue to be working in me to make me into the person He intends, as close to Christ as is humanly possible. This flame is my hope in a broken world.
As I open my eyes, the world is as I perceive it, and it remains easy to be overwhelmed by what is illuminated by other lights such as that found in clinics, in operating rooms, our places of work, our homes, and all that is under the sun. And as I move through life, I recognize that I possess feelings about my faith, and I find them to be fragile. And so I think it appropriate to picture my perception of my faith as a candle, because I’ve seen in myself and in my brothers- and sisters-in-Christ that, even though the power of God dwelling in our hearts is equal, the manner in which our faith is lived out differs dramatically; for some the candle burns with a bright flame, for others it struggles to stay lit, and for others it is smothered altogether. And the perception can change with circumstance. Having been convicted innumerably by the words of many writers for my anxiety and worry, I long for the time when the candle burns confidently regardless of my current condition. I trust that there are bright days ahead for each of us.
Can I cling to this one dream, though? That there’ll be a time when I no longer have to sit for long periods in gastrointestinal clinics? If this day comes, I will, in fact, commemorate it with a candle. I’ll also get one of those Digestive System posters, and I will burn that sucker to ashes. That’ll quench that flame.