(Written in November 2011, the following article appears in the February 2012 issue of Mandate under the title "Remember That You Are Dust". It was awarded first place in the Theological Reflection category of the 2013 Canadian Church Press Awards).
Last year my Lenten journey began at the hospital on the morning of Maundy Thursday. That is when my appointment for a bone marrow biopsy was scheduled. During the procedure the doctor was surprised to learn that I planned to go to work later that day. I told him that I couldn’t imagine a better place to be than preaching my way through Easter weekend while awaiting the results.
The test was, in my doctor’s words, just due diligence. Some odd results had appeared. It was unlikely that anything serious was the cause. But it seemed wise to be sure. That was the reason that I limped through Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When asked, I said that I had a sore back. I didn’t explain the reason. Those first days awaiting the test results were difficult, lonely, and worrisome. It was good to be able to preach of death and resurrection to myself in the guise of preaching to the congregation.
The results came back a week later and were not good. It took another two weeks to confirm the diagnosis - multiple myeloma, incurable cancer of the plasma. The words that I had spoken during the imposition of ashes on the first Sunday in Lent now came in the form of a doctor’s report: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
In the immediate aftermath I remember thinking how blessed I was by family, medical care, and the church. I knew that no matter what wilderness lay ahead for me, I would not be alone. But after 31 years of ministry, and 16 at University Hill Congregation, I did not know what to do next. I am used to being healthy and offering care. How would I tell the congregation? How would we walk through this illness together?
I decided to phone each of the elders on the session as well as the staff on the ministry team and to invite them to gather with me. It was a Wednesday. We would meet on Thursday evening. The phone calls were not easy. Each conversation was a journey in sharing the burden of the cross.
The next evening we gathered at the home of the chair of the session, Walter Rilkoff. There were about a dozen of us. Walter had just been installed as chair. I had recently met with him over lunch, assuring him that I would be a support through the three years of his term. This shocking news was not in the plan. There were many hugs and teary eyes as we greeted one another. I was about to open the meeting when Walter stepped forward with handwritten notes. Shaking, he invited us into the time ahead with caring, wise, faithful words. He took the lead. I realized that in the days ahead I would need to let go and be led.
We talked, we cried, we laughed, we prayed. I was to be away on the following Sunday, attending the annual meeting of British Columbia Conference. It was agreed that Walter would step forward during worship and share the hard news with the congregation. There was wisdom in this decision. This gave the congregation time in my absence to receive the news and to begin to deal with what it means to know that your minister has incurable cancer.
That week we began a wilderness journey together. We do not know how long the journey will last. Throughout my ministry I have been teaching that the 40 days of Lent, like the 40 days of the flood and the 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, are meant to portray a lengthy, formative time on the way to the Promised Land of redemption and resurrection.
Since then I have learned some things about life in the wilderness of cancer. I have learned that the church is a great gift in the face of mortality. These days we tend to easily spot the flaws in the church. Since my diagnosis, I have been noticing the beauty of the church all around us. At the annual meeting of Conference I was overcome by the care and concern of so many colleagues. In the midst of tears I was hugged and held. I began to tell others that everyone in the Conference should have the gift of attending one annual meeting with a little sign over their head that reads: “This person may die soon.” It was if a veil had been lifted so that I could see clearly that this is the church of Jesus Christ, the church of shared suffering, the church of burden bearing, the cruciform church.
Back home at University Hill Congregation we spent the next weeks getting over the shock and settling in for the long haul. The doctors say that, while incurable, this cancer is in an early stage and will likely be chronic and manageable for the foreseeable future. The good news is that I am not dying right away and will be able to continue to serve as a minister. To my surprise this has been a great gift to my preaching. I haven’t changed the message. For years I have been preaching that the gospel begins with the hard news of a Good Friday ending and that it carries us through a long Holy Saturday wilderness until finally resolving in the impossible good news of Easter’s new creation. But now that the congregation knows that I have been given a Good Friday diagnosis, my testimony seems somehow more authentic, more compelling, more truthful.
Since those early weeks I have been the recipient of a stem cell transplant that has taken me away from congregational life for five months. The Rev. Doug Goodwin, a member of University Hill who is also Executive Secretary of British Columbia Conference, was given a half-time leave of absence to step in as pastoral leader. Doug presides each Sunday, preaches frequently, and provides continuity in leadership through the week. Other members of the ministry team who are employed part-time had their roles increased to take on other aspects of my work.
During my absence I have stayed connected with the congregation through cards, e-mails, phone calls, and a blog that updates my medical progress. I am held in prayer by congregants and colleagues near and far. We are traveling through the wilderness on separate paths for awhile in order to meet again soon. When we do, we trust that the Holy Spirit will inspire gifts for ministry in the wilderness of mortality, where the gospel of Jesus Christ is the bread of heaven for pastor and congregation alike.
- Edwin Searcy