United Church Campus Ministry at UBC
There are psalms of orientation, like the first psalm - “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked ... but their delight is in the law of the LORD. They are like trees planted by streams of water.” There are psalms of dis-orientation, like the sixth psalm: “O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. My soul is also struck with terror, while you , O LORD - how long?” And there are psalms of re-orientation, such as the thirtieth psalm: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”
When invited to bring you a witness to life lived on the other side of the diagnosis of incurable cancer I expected that one of the psalms of dis-orientation would be in order. It was a year ago now that my life became disoriented. I was waiting for results from a prostate biopsy and would not have been at all surprised to learn that I had an early stage of prostate cancer with a high chance of a cure. Instead, I learned that while there is no cancer in my prostate there is cancer in my immune system. I have two illnesses which rarely strike someone my age: multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma that causes bone tumours and immune system failure, and a related disease called amyloidosis, sticky proteins that can clog key organs and cause them to eventually fail. Both diseases are in an early stage, have not yet caused me any symptoms, and will likely be chronic for a good while yet. Last September I received an autologous stem cell transplant in which my own stem cells were used in a “re-boot” of my blood production system. We had hoped that this treatment would lead to some years of remission during which I would not require treatments. However, my body did not respond as predicted and so this week I have begun a second line of treatment which involves taking a chemotherapy prescription orally each day. I am very fortunate to live in a time when there are treatments for these diseases and in a country which will cover the cost of my care. I am blessed to be surrounded by a family of care and supported by a church that shares my burdens. And I am now nearly one year into my new existence as a person living with incurable cancer. It has been, to say the least, a disorienting year.
I fully expected that today I would bring a testimony grounded in one of the psalms of ache and lament, of longing and despair, one of the psalms of dis-orientation. Instead, I found myself drawn to the thirtieth Psalm, a psalm of thanksgiving for recovery, a song at the dedication of the temple. It is a song that intends to strengthen the community, to invite it to join in a song of praise to the LORD - to Yahweh, the God who has raised the singer up from “the Pit” (vs. 3). Mostly it is a prayer offered by the singer to God. It is an “I - Thou” prayer, “me and you, God”. In it we listen in on the relationship between the sufferer who has been healed and the God who has done the healing. But for a moment the singer turns to the congregation and says “Sing praises to the LORD ... and give thanks to his holy name ... Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Vss. 4-5).
It is as if the congregation looks at the singer with a perplexed expression. It is as if it cannot find a voice to sing praise, given the suffering that it witnesses. So, the singer recounts the story to God. “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ By your favour, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.” (Vss. 6-7). The psalm turns on a single moment of dis-orientation. The singer has been strong - strong enough to be a father and pastor who for many years offered care from a place of health. Strong enough to run a marathon six years ago. I was not so bold as to think I would never be weakened, but I had allowed myself to imagine a relatively lengthy, healthy lifespan ahead. But then one day the face of the God who sustained my health for nearly six decades was hidden from me. In its place was the phone message that test results had come in and that I needed to see the doctor first thing in the morning. I was dismayed. That is putting it mildly. In the span of a few weeks of test results I went from health to illness, from enjoying life to facing death. It was disorienting for me, my family, my friends and my congregation. We were dismayed.
I could not have predicted my response. Yes, there has been anger, sadness, frustration, lament, tears. It is dis-locating to hear such news and to know it will not change. This is the new normal. But then I discovered something else. There is great gift in this time. I have a lingering, early stage cancer that does not immediately threaten my life. I must prepare myself for treatments and for suffering and for increasing weakness and for the dangers of infections that will threaten and eventually take my life. But, for now and for the immediate future, I am well. There are side-effects from the treatment, but those can be managed. And I recognize the strategy of the singer of the thirtieth psalm. This daring singer turns to God with a proposition: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!” (Vss. 9-10) The psalmist knows that God is short of praisers in this world. The psalmist makes a deal with God. Heal me and I will tell the world. It will be good for you and good for me. It is a win-win proposition.
Then, in the next verse, it has happened. Resurrection. A miracle. “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed my with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever. (Vss. 11-12). There is no explanation of this turn around. There is no description of how this healing has occurred. There is simply the announcement that this dis-oriented life has become re-oriented by the faithfulness of God. It is not a return to the old, oriented, stable, strong normal. And it is not simply the new normal of dis-oriented lament and trouble, that cries out in despair. It is a new, new normal lived in light of the trouble, lived out of the experience of dis-location. It is a life of praise that is sung by one who knows what it is to be in the pit of despond, to live close to death, to no longer be at ease but to now be dis-eased.
For many years now I have been preaching a three day gospel. When asked to give the short-hand of the gospel I say that it is a three chord progression in a blues riff. The gospel begins when you are confronted by Good Friday in your life. When you confront an ending that devastates you, in this case the diagnosis of incurable cancer, then you are not at the end of your life. Then you are at the beginning of a gospel journey. But this is not followed by an immediate resolution. Instead there is a middle chord called Holy Saturday, a chord of dis-orientation in which you wait in patience for re-orientation. This is the day, the chord, that demands reserves of hope and that requires a life in community with other radical hopers who do not give up on God or on you. And then, according to the gospel, there is surely, finally, eventually Sunday. The day of resurrection. The day when God creates a new heart, a new soul, a new life in you, in the church, in the world. The day when mourning turns to dancing and we are clothed with joy. I have learned that these three days, these three chords, overlap and intermingle. They create a harmony, not a discordant melody. As we become more experienced players we learn to allow all three days - Friday lamenting, Saturday longing, Sunday rejoicing - to have a voice at once.
This is the gift that God has given me now. God has given me a three day gospel to proclaim in my own life. God has answered my prayer for healing. No, there is no cure for multiple myeloma or for amyloidosis. But there is healing for my soul. I am not anxious about my life. Little things no longer trouble me. Each day is a gift. And now people ask me to come and speak to them about having faith while living with an incurable illness. Somehow my testimony seems more authentic because, well, my story of trouble seems more compelling. Being asked to preach. Do you see? It is a preacher’s dream come true. God needs praisers. I am happy to oblige. Because I have much to thank God for, a God who in Jesus Christ has lifted me up from ache and clothed me with joy. People often seem somewhat surprised that I have “taken it so well”. To be honest, I am surprised myself. But then I remember that I have been preaching this gospel, one way or the other, since I was ordained in 1980. Eventually, through all those sermons and prayers and bible studies and funerals and trips to the cemetery, the gospel has worked its way into my bones. Now, even as multiple myeloma weakens those same bones, I am discovering that cancer cannot weaken the God who carries me and you through death to life, from Friday to Sunday, from mourning into dancing, from garments of sackcloth to clothes of joy.
- Edwin Searcy
* The image posted above is from Kickin' Karen