This summer, I opened the pages of Nina Riggs’ memoir on living and dying, The Bright Hour, the same day that I walked into a cancer treatment center for the first time in my life. I’d waited for the publication of this book after reading about her embrace of daily life in Greensboro, N.C., as she faced a terminal diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. During the short period chronicled in the book, the author watches her mother and her best friend Ginny die of cancer: To say that Riggs — and here I just have to call her Nina — has a familiarity with grief is a bit of an understatement.
I saw ailing patients. I saw the neighborhoods surrounding Hartford Hospital, which belie the city’s reputation as the home of pin-striped actuaries bored with their BMWs. Connecticut’s capital is, in fact, one of the nation’s poorest communities, its many marginalized Hispanic and African American neighborhoods barely seen by the BMW drivers. The cerebral palsy victims trapped in their bodies; MS patients; old women fumbling for change on the bus while hooked up to portable oxygen; old men wheezing with emphysema. So many people we barely see — and I was one of them.
I took solace in knowing that Jesus makes a bee-line for my new world.
One of my days last week started with my usual wake-up routine — sitting in a chair, sipping my first cup of coffee, checking up on Facebook posts — when one of them made me smile.
A long-time friend in Cleveland has endured 250 days of chemotherapy and radiation. He’d just received the results of his latest scan: No trace of cancer anywhere. Yes! Chuck noted that “the collateral damage has been great” from all the chemicals and radiation. He now stumbles around and has trouble typing, both temporary conditions. But he’s cancer-free.
Stumbling, yet still standing.
This past year taught me so much about the gospel and caused me to go deeper into my faith. As this new year begins, here are five spiritual resolutions I learned from last year:
1. Return to the gospel. Gordon Cosby, the founder and pastor of The Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. passed away in early 2013. He was a mentor, elder, and spiritual director to me. I miss Gordon greatly and often have things I would like to talk with him about. But I usually know what he would say to me and it would always be about returning to the gospel. In his last sermon, spoken from his death bed, he spoke of Jesus’ “clear and frightening statement that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
One morning each week, I ascend the outdoor staircase on the side of our little church and enter the Upper Room – a cozy, loftlike space above the pastors’ offices set apart for prayer.
Once inside, I turn up the volume on my phone, choose “Taize” or “Gregorian Chants” from the iTunes playlists, pull out my knitting and begin to pray.
The subject of my silent prayers is usually the person for whom I’m making the scarf or blanket or shawl. The prayers are as simple as the stitches and after a minute or two, they become as steady and unconscious as my breathing:
“Lord, I lift to you your child.” And then I say his or her name.
This is a very personal column. In December of last year, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. There were no symptoms or problems, just some results from a routine blood test that needed to be checked out. I remember being on a conference call when I saw the doctor was phoning with the results of a biopsy, but continued on with the other call assuming I could return it later to hear that there were no problems. There were problems, he told me, and I would need to see a surgeon.
Surprise was not the right word — not even shock. The news felt incredulous to me. I was about to launch a new book tour early in 2013 and everything seemed to be in control. And Sojourners was involved in intense advocacy work around immigration reform, gun violence, and the budget/sequester battles. There had to be a mistake, or surely some convenient treatment that would suffice. Certainly, I would work this all out privately, and stay on schedule for everything else. But then the conversations started, as did meetings, further testing, time-consuming activities, discussions of medical options — and a deepening anxiety began to grow over the next several weeks.
The book tour for On God’s Side, both U.S. and U.K., had to be postponed and reset without saying why. I kept the health news and discussions in a small and close circle of family, friends, and senior staff. And I did my best to go on as if this wasn’t happening. But it was.
My friend Mike died last week.
We were the same age. We grew up together in Marinette in northeast Wisconsin. Worked our way through Boy Scouts together. Played at each other’s houses. Studied in the same classrooms. And then, over time, we drifted apart. Until this past year. That’s when I learned that Mike was dying of cancer.
In less than 12 months, we re-established a friendship and Mike and his wife, Nancy, taught me amazing lessons about living with the prospect of dying.
In our initial contacts, Nancy wrote of Mike:
“He is doing well with his treatments. I am amazed, each day, how well he handles this journey we are on. Never once have we asked ‘why us?’ We feel so blessed that we have each day to love each other and enjoy our retirement one day at a time. Not everyone is so lucky to have a long goodbye with the one they love.“
I've been thinking, as Advent goes on, what it meant for God to lay aside infinity and put on a body that was not just tiny, inarticulate, and helpless, but also already marked, to the marrow of its little bones, with the seeds of death.
He must have felt in his own flesh this dramatic comedown — from omnipotence and omnipresence to a being that had about threescore and 10, max, even if it hadn’t going to be cut off halfway by self-sacrifice and Roman capital punishment. And that must have given Jesus infinite tenderness and patience towards the waves and waves of people who, during his short ministry, were always coming up to him and asking, directly or just by their presence, for him to heal their bodies. In Luke, the Gospel focus of the new liturgical year, there are more than 20 healings by my count, compared to two times when someone asks Christ how to get eternal life (and only one of them actually wanted to know).
Those healings of all those bodies matter, millennia later. One big reason they matter is because healing matters. Another is because, by showing God's power over death as well as by going through death ahead of us, Christ teaches us not to be dominated by fear of it.
“It was like a scene out of a movie.”
I’ve heard that phrase a few too many times in the past month.
On June 26, after the third consecutive 100-plus-degree day, residents of northwest Colorado Springs fled their neighborhoods with a few belongings shoved in their cars as a wildfire came barreling down the mountainside. The billows of smoke and inferno flames, calculated to be three stories high, could be seen from anywhere in the city. It was like a scene out of a movie.
In the early morning hours on July 4, I received the text that I had been dreading: “Cliffy is with Jesus.” After a six-year battle with cancer, my biggest cheerleader, friend, and mentor, Cliff Anderson, died in hospice. Two months prior, Cliff was sharing his wisdom and offering his typical words of encouragement at a retreat for GreenHouse Ministry, an intentional community that we started together in Colorado Springs. But shortly after that weekend the diagnosis became clear. This incurable type of cancer was going to win, sooner rather than later. Watching his decline felt like watching a tragic movie.
At the midnight premiere of the new Batman movie, Dark Night Rises, on July 20 in a suburb of Denver, a gunman opened fire on a packed theater, killing 12 and injuring more than 50 people Witnesses to the shooting said it was like something out of a movie. The scene was an eerie echo of another mass shooting in a different Denver suburb 13 years ago at Columbine High School. Could this really be happening again?
Our health care system is not arbitrary. It does not operate by a set of principles that are beyond comprehension. We govern it. We participate in its capitalistic maneuvering and its political favoring. My family has health insurance in part because we have been given advantages due to racial identity, family networking, and being part of the 1 percent. All of these things have worked specifically in my favor to save the life of my dear mother. None of this is fair.
When I praise God for my mother’s enduring health, it is impossible not to think of how many others have indirectly contributed to this success. And to wonder if we have also indirectly contributed to their failures.
Sharing stories of my own mother and the ways she taught and encouraged me feels like the best way to honor her on Mother's Day. To this day when I am thinking of expressing an uncharitable thought I can hear her voice “If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything.”
Although this may sound like a cliché, it is a teaching that I am relearning once again in a class called “Wisdom of the Desert” and finding that my mother's sensibilities had many similarities to that of the early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers. Gratitude and hospitality, two huge teachings of the desert monks, were also lessons I learned from my mother.
"I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors," Ebert writes. "I think what happens in them is sociopolitical, not spiritual. I believe the prosperity gospel tries to pass through the eye of the needle. I believe it is easier for a Republican to pass through the eye of a needle than for a camel to get into heaven. I have no patience for churches that evangelize aggressively.
"I have no interest in being instructed in what I must do to be saved. I prefer vertical prayers, directed up toward heaven, rather than horizontal prayers, directed sideways toward me," he continued. "If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must regard their beliefs with the same respect our own deserve."