Today I complete the first month of a three month treatment program in preparation for a stem cell transplant at the end of August. During these three months I am receiving high doses of steroids in order to put the myeloma into remission. For some reason myeloma is very sensitive to steroids. I was in to see the doctor on Tuesday and the results of my blood tests after one month are very encouraging. The evidence of myeloma has decreased by sixty percent since I began taking steroids. Its all good.
Except. Except that taking large doses of steroids changes your body chemistry in two very noticeable ways. One, my emotions are much closer to the surface. Two weeks ago I was leading worship, reading the Great Thanksgiving prayer during the Eucharist and came across a beautiful line in the prayer. I started to cry. I mean, really. It was moving, but not that moving! The other main effect of the steroids is even more unnerving. I am constantly "juiced". I feel like Ben Johnson looked when he ran in Seoul, full of steroids. If my normal energy levels feel like my engine runs on low-grade gasoline at the pump I now feel like I am lifting off of the launch pad at Cape Canaveral all day. I am normally a pretty energetic person. Now I am that energetic person multiplied. On one level, its not such a bad side effect. I am getting a lot done. The "to do" lists at home and work get written down and they actually get done. But on another level it gets very tiresome to never have the experience of feeling tired. There is not a minute of relaxing in the day. If I sit down on the couch to rest, my internal motor is still revving on all cylinders. In a society that so values productivity it would seem a great gift to be able to go from the moment your eyes open (usually at 4:30 am these days, when the sleeping pill I have been prescribed wears off) til the moment you mercifully get some drug-induced sleep. It doesn't take long, however, until you realize that being human includes the gifts of feeling tired, of needing to rest, of being able to relax and of reaching the limits of your energy and capacity.
Sometimes I think that we pastors dream of one day being in a church with a kind of steroid-fueled energy. We imagine a church with wonderfully high capacity for social change, with boundless energy for pastoral care, with constant involvement in the disciplines of Christian formation. Instead, we receive a church that runs on regular gasoline. Instead, we serve a church with obviously limited energy, a church that needs its rest, a church that regularly gets fatigued and cannot do everything on its ideal "to do" list.
I remember my youthful ideals for the church that I thought God should be creating. It is now so obvious that my precious ideals were sadly illusory and could only be accomplished by a form of illicit and unnatural spiritual doping. I am reminded of the warnings in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's little classic "Life Together" ...
"On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put into a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life should be, and they will be anxious to realize it. But God's grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community ... The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community, the better for both. However, a community that cannot bear and cannot survive such disillusionment, clinging instead to its idealized image, when that should be done away with, loses at the same time the promise of a durable Christian community. Sooner or later it is bound to collapse. Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial."
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Life Together, Fortress Press, 2005, pp 35-36)