More answers (and more questions I hope) coming soon!
Q. Has it been hard for people to talk with you face to face or for you to talk with others face to face about your condition, as well as living and dying? What has it been like?
A. My experience has been one of disrupting the people that are courageous enough to interact with me. It doesn’t seem to be so much what I say or even how I say it (though I can be pretty raw); instead, just being in the room with a dying person can be difficult for many. Confronting your own eventual mortality is the price you pay for being around me. For most people this creates an inner terror; for some it invokes a bold curiosity and a tender compassion. I would encourage you to commit to being in the latter group if you want to care for someone with cancer.
A great gift to give a person ill with a terminal disease is to have the courage to ask them good questions and to listen to them with intentionality and warmth. I want to talk about my life as it is being lived out now in a new way. I also want to talk about my death, believe it or not. Both are realities to be processed. Help me do this and I will be forever grateful.
Cancer is an incredibly lonely disease. No one knows what to say. It is all very awkward (yes, I had my PSA tested every year like I was supposed to – thanks so much for asking). It’s like there’s an invisible wall between you and the rest of the world. Climb over that wall and I will love you – and probably talk your ear off, so have somewhere else to be in an hour.
Q. Ed, I believe I have read every blog you have written and have sensed no bitterness. What super human characteristic, and grace of God, allows you to face a terminal illness and wage continuous battle to extend your life without asking why?
A. I have been trying to stop laughing before I answered this one. No bitterness and never asking why? Seriously? Have I really given that impression? Dear God in heaven, please forgive me. You have created within me a renewed commitment to be gut-level honest on this blog with my battles and this dangerous journey I am on. I am so sorry to have misled you.
Note that I didn’t apologize for my failures, in that I don’t believe that our struggles mean that we have failed. Triumphalism (watch me overcome the emotional and spiritual fallout of cancer) is attractive, but is actually a wicked taskmaster that is always whispering in our ear that we should be better than we are in whatever we are up against. Perhaps so, but before we can get better at life (and death) I think we first have to be deeply loved just as we are. Only from this place can we grow through the adversity we are facing.
George MacDonald wrote in Lilith, “You doubt because you love truth.” I think this gets to the heart of our struggles. If living in this world were easy, then doubt would be failure. But in our present context, doubt (and all the angst that goes with it), is simply required of us if we are to believe in something greater than our difficult circumstances. I believe the ultimate story of our lives is simply too grand to be believed without battling hard against lesser things.
Q. I like the quote above by George MacDonald: “You doubt because you love truth”. But, I’m having trouble uncovering what he means….. Would you share your thoughts, please?
A. Okay, here’s the quote (updated to make the language more accessible) in context:
“You doubt because you love the truth. Some would willingly believe life is nothing but a phantasm (illusion), if it would only afford them a world of pleasant dreams forever: you are not such a person! Be content for a while not to know with certainty. The hour will come, and that before long, when because you are true you will behold the very truth, and doubt will be forever dead. Hardly will you then be able to recall the features of the phantom. Then you will know what you cannot even dream now. You have not yet looked the Truth in the face; so far you have seen him through a cloud at best. What you do not see, and never did see except in a glass darkly – what, in fact, can never be known except by its innate splendor shining straight into pure eyes – that you cannot help doubting, and are blameless in doubting until you see it face to face, when you will no longer be able to doubt it. But to him who has once seen even only a shadow of the truth, and, even if he is left hoping that he actually saw it once it is no longer present, tries to obey it – to him the real vision, the Truth himself, will come, and depart no more, but abide with him forever.” – George MacDonald, Lilith
My understanding is that MacDonald is saying we can never fully embrace the Truth until all illusions in our world (and in our hearts) are dispelled. Doubt will die on this day because the Truth will shine so brightly it will no longer be able to obscure our vision. Until that day, we will struggle because it is impossible to see with the clarity that would eliminate doubt.
Q. What was it like being a pastor? How were you called into the ministry? Any advice for young/new pastors?
A. Do I have to answer this? I don’t want to scare you off. Let me start by saying that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month. You should not make this your vocation if there is something else you could do to honor God with your life. I burned out then blew up after 32 years. Poor boundaries, a messiah complex and the need to suffer to be spiritual was all it took. Pastors are some of the most neurotic people I know. I led the charge and hid behind my clerical robe to throw you of my scent.
That said, being a pastor is also one of the most glorious callings you can receive. You are invited into people’s lives and trusted with their deepest struggles and secrets. You walk through life with people and help orient them when things are spinning out of control. Representing Christ to them, you love them, accept them, guide them and teach them. It truly is wonderful, if you are doing your own inner work and humbly walking beside your parishioners, helping them to do theirs.
I was called into the ministry (as the saying goes) because others saw in me a “pastor’s heart.” I cared for people – deeply. I was so good at it that others thought I could make a living doing it, apparently. Personally, I just think that God wanted to keep me up front where He could keep an eye on me. I do believe I was called, however. Even today, I feel like I am still a pastor, even though I am no longer in vocational ministry. I find myself loving people, even though I don’t have to (pause and think about how that reveals a glaring danger of being “in the ministry”).
If you want to read more about how I lost, and then found, my calling click here.
If you are a new/young pastor, there are some things you must do:
- Get a small group of people around you who aren’t afraid to ask hard questions and who love you well. I still meet with mine to this day.
- Listen to your spouse (if you are married) about their concerns regarding how being a pastor is impacting you and your family. I didn’t.
- Guard your day off with an iron fist. Train your congregation to respect it. I used to tell mine that they better have died if they called me on my day off.
- Do your inner work. Find a spiritual director or counselor who isn’t impressed with you and is instead concerned about the challenges of your calling. Insist that they be ruthless and loving with your soul.
The pastorate is a dangerous place. You can hide from God there and no one may know the better. Be careful out there, okay?
Q. Can you briefly summarize if/how your relationship with The Divine has changed (in light of your diagnosis)?
A. You lost me at “briefly.” Ok, here is the first thing that popped into my mind. Through my suffering, God has unilaterally invited me to worship Him as both sovereign and good, regardless of my circumstances. It’s a bit like the Old Testament story of Job. Surely no one worships God simply because He’s God. We worship Him for His kind blessings upon us. If those blessings are removed, then loving God doesn’t seem to be worth it. After all, He didn’t keep His end of the transaction.
This thinking reveals, however, that what we are actually worshipping is our own plans for our lives. God’s role is to “bless” those plans. If He, instead, thwarts them by inviting us into suffering and loss, then He has failed us. The question becomes: will we attempt to remain in control of our lives, even if all we can do is shake our fist at Him? Many choose this option. It’s a popular choice when our lives are no longer under our control (not that they ever were).
What I have learned in all this, though, has been a different path. Our loss of control and resulting suffering, when united in trust to the cross of Christ (where God suffered for us), is both meaningful and redemptive. It proclaims the Truth that is greater than all truths: God doesn’t exist to make us happy; we exist to show that God, no matter what our circumstances, is worthy of our worship and is, in fact, all that we need.
“. . . And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
– Jesus, Matthew 28:20
Q. I feel like God has been speaking to me a lot about ACTING, not just knowing. Like being a doer, not just a hearer of the Word. For instance, I can know a ton about nutrition and exercise, but if I don’t put it into practice, what is the use? What are your thoughts on what it actually looks like (actions we can take) to trust God?
A. Believing in God and trusting God are two radically different things. James 2:19 declares, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Entrusting yourself to God is, I believe, our life work. Restoring a relationship of dependency upon Him makes us again who we were created to be.
What does it look like? I think it looks like the struggle that ensues when life overwhelms us. If life “works” for us, we will never trust anyone but ourselves. It is only when we are stretched beyond ourselves that our trust in God grows as He proves Himself faithful.
A good picture of this is the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea. They had to obey God by stepping into the water before the sea would part for them. Deliberately choosing to get outside of our comfort zones is the action necessary to grow trust. Now, no one wants to do this, so you need divine help.
Here is the crazy prayer I would suggest that you pray to get it: “God, I was made for a relationship of trust with you, not comfort in and of myself. That I might experience life as you intended that I live it, please create the necessary circumstances for me to look to You, cry out to You, and depend upon You for all things, whatever chaos this may bring into my life.”
If you get no results, please contact me and I will give you some of my maelstrom. I would be happy to share.
Q. Greetings, Ed. You know, I always loved that Scripture from Isaiah. I originally thought ( in my rather immature state of walking with Christ, ) HURRAY! Christ is with me, he’ll see me thru. Translated by me: ahhhh, things won’t be so bad…..concentrating on the words, “pass thru, go thru, NOT sweep over you, NOT burn you.” But, Alas & Alack, once I EXPERIENCED this HORROR in Trials, sickness, death….THEN the words “FIRE!!!! SET ABLAZE!!!!! SWEEP!!! over me”….Those words became Real & ACTUAL!!!!! What the Heck?!?!?! I didn’t want to be actually DROWNING!!!! Or (almost) BURNT TO A CRISP!!!!! Sure, Christ is there, but my flesh is singed and I’m swallowing water & bobbing up & down in the waves!!!!! I EXPECTED a Christian life of ease, I guess… And still waters all the time. Yet, thru my Walk: painful, hopeless, fear, crying…. Christ held me & sustained me…. Gently teaching & helping me to ‘cope’ with ‘bad stuff’ (expletive). And then surrender, wait, grow, collapse, get up, trust, FEEL HIS LOVE…. Why, Ed, why? Such a “walk” as this? Life as a mortal? His Image in us, in our yucky flesh?
A. Reality is a bitch, isn’t it? Everything is good and our lives are fine until the day that she knocks on our door (and she always does). If we don’t answer, she simply kicks the door down and moves in. When she shows up, religion quietly sneaks out the back door. As long as life works, religion is happy to take credit (you are a good person; of course life works for you – you deserve it). Religion demands a useful god, though. I’m afraid no such god exists in reality.
But what do we do when life doesn’t work any more? Religion that saves us “from” pain and suffering has been exposed for the fraud that it is. Are we left with nothing but meaningless pain that leaves us bitter and angry? Jesus offers us a third alternative: He doesn’t promise us deliverance from suffering, He tells us instead there is a reality that is greater than suffering – a reality that will one day swallow up suffering for all time.
I am dying of cancer in my 50’s (so the doctors say). But this is not my ultimate reality. As C.S. Lewis said, “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” But before this day comes, you described life honestly and well. You also answered your own question of “Why?” Life is overwhelming and hard that we might learn to trust in the presence of Christ and not ourselves.
Here’s how you put it: “Christ is there. Christ held me and sustained me. He gently taught me and helped me to cope with the shit (did I get your expletive right?). And then surrender, wait, grow, collapse, get up, trust, FEEL HIS LOVE.”
If I’m not mistaken, I think you just told us what life is all about.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.
In this world you will have trouble.
But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Q. Would you share what your life is like now living with ( ‘with’–seems like an odd word. Like cancer is a roommate) cancer?
A. Terminal cancer as a roommate might be an apt analogy, as long as you understand this “roommate” wakes you up every morning by whispering in your ear, “I’m going to kill you.” It’s freaky. How did this interloper get into my body? The thought that it is slowly destroying me is what plays with my mind.
My prostate cancer is aggressive and end stage according to my physicians, so please understand I am speaking from an extreme place of challenge. That said, I think living with cancer is a severe mercy. In threatening to kill me, it has awakened me to the daily privilege of being alive.
It has also created a battle in my heart between hope and despair. If I think cancer is the biggest thing in my life, I am overcome with despair. I become morbid and depressed, wondering why I have been afflicted in this way. If I look farther up and further in, though, I start believing something ludicrous, if it is not true.
I believe that cancer will not have the final word. I believe that God “causes ALL things to work together for good for those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). I believe that my “light and momentary affliction is producing in me an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (II Corinthians 4:17).
I may be crazy, but I really believe these things – about every other day. Living with cancer is a constant battle to believe what is ultimately true about the universe. It’s funny, but cancer serves me in this way. It trains me to trust in something other than myself. If I will, it may claim my body, but it will never claim my heart. God, through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ, has that claim. Cancer or not – I am His forever.
Q. Tell us more what it’s like being ‘lonely’ living w/ cancer. I can sense that feeling, like adrift on an Island w/ land (people) at a distance….. Being there Not by Choice. And perhaps saying, “Hey, I’m over here! Come see & interact with Me!”