Category Archives: Cancer

Lessons From the Waiting Room

This morning, I pulled on my clothes at 5:30 am and headed to the hospital to be with a member going into surgery. It took me back to August of 2001 when my “baby” sis had breast cancer. I wasn’t pastor that day. I drove to Atlanta, took the day off, and went to be with my family as she fought the toughest fight of her (maybe any of our family). She is 12 years my junior, and I left home for college when Amy was only 5. I adored her more like a doting uncle than a brother, although as adults I have loved her as a peer. She is smart, lovely, and, it turned out, a fighter. She went through it, survived, and is going strong. Still, I went back to that day, years ago, when I sat, helpless, in a waiting room, unsure what the coming hours would bring. It taught me some lessons.

Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays.  Last week, though, Vickie and I spent the day where so many of our members find themselves at one time or another—in the waiting room.  As we awaited my sister’s surgery, I found myself in the unusual position of being the recipient of visits.

Photo from flicker by timmielee5359/Kim Schuster

Photo from flicker by timmielee5359/Kim Schuster

As a family we had gone through all the decisions, phone calls, prayers and anxiety that patient families do.  Now the day had come and we had to—wait.  Here are some of the lessons I learned for just one day.

  • The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom. You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say.  Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
  • There are so many feelings for just one day. Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect it.  Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation.  They all pass through.  All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
  • People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
  • Family, friends and church members are a comfort. You don’t have to say much.  Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you.  All day long people I hadn’t met from her church came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.”  It was truly humbling.  Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away.  Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
  • It is neat to just be “her older brother from out of town.” No tie.
  • Hospital food must come from a single warehouse. I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal.  Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit. (Editor’s note: this is better now)
  • Time is timeless in a hospital. That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time.  “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked.  “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.)  It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
  • You overhear some really interesting conversations. Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently.  “No, no, no, you’re Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…”  That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day.  I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew.  “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
  • There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
  • There are a lot of people in trouble in this world. People from everywhere.  People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
  • Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped. God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.
  • 2017 update: In the waiting room, you are all the same. Democrat, Republican, affluent suburbanite, poor rural family, educated and street smart, old and tired and toddlers rambunctious. We are one in our waiting. Too bad we can’t keep that in us when we go home. The man next to me is worried about his wife, the lady over there and her friend are laughing, someone else praying. If we all hang in there, we’ll get through the day. Wait. Pray. Hope.  

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Pat Terry and the Eye of the Artist

 If we learn to look at life with the eyes of the artist, we

will see an entire universe that is “a gift of mercy.”

Workshop

Pat pondering how to help a workshop participants song

It’s odd that a musical preacher who writes songs, cut his teeth and got called to ministry during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s would have met Pat Terry so late in life, but that’s the way life winds sometimes.  I had heard of the Pat Terry group back when he was starting out—Pat is just a bit older than me.  I heard his songs, but my musical journey got put on hold for a long time as marriage and children and years in graduate education and pastoral ministry took me in different directions.  I continued listening to music and playing and singing, sometimes in church and mostly by myself for my own pleasure.

Pat Terry, meanwhile, was on a journey of his own, too.  After many years, first in the very spontaneous and joyful Jesus Movement musical world, and then for a while in the increasingly industry-captivated contemporary Christian musical world, he moved on.  He had a good, long run as a commercial songwriter in Nashville, with a string of songs for many well-known artists like John Anderson, Travis Tritt, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Tanya Tucker and the Oak Ridge Boys.  He learned the Nashville craft and all the while continuing his own inner journey of writing from the heart.

So it was that a few years ago, Greg Womble, my friend and bandmate who plays the banjo publicly, and I, who play it out of earshot but love it, went to Atlanta to Read the rest of this entry

The Four Things That Matter Most

 

Please forgive me.  I forgive you.  Thank you.  I love you.

The wonderful New Testament scholar George Beasley-Murray once wrote that what the gospel of Mark imparts to us in nine verses, the gospel of John spends five chapters.  John 13-17 is the home of some of the richest, most direct and powerful sayings of Jesus.  It is called by scholars, “The Farewell Discourse.”  Words from a dying man to his beloved friends.  He says, “I love you,” again and again in many ways.  He tells them things that need saying.  Death concentrates the mind and focuses life.

Dr. Ira Byock

My friend Paul Robertson, who is a Chaplain and CPE director in Houston, Texas, told me about a book by Dr. Ira Byock called, The Four Things That Matter Most:  A Book About Living.  Dr. Byock is a physician specializing in palliative care at Dartmouth Medical Center and a professor of palliative care at the medical school there.  Palliative care, if you don’t know the lingo, is about helping people to die with integrity and comfort, easing the journey to death.  So it may seem odd that a book that is about dying and making peace with death would have as its subtitle, “A Book About Living.”

He says that these are the “four things” that matter most, and that before we can die, or live for that matter, we must say them to the people who matter to us the most.  This is a wonderful book, one I recommend you read.  It’s short, beautiful and on target.  Here are his four things:

 

 

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

I love you.

Some thoughts from Dr. Byock that spoke to me:

“I’ve learned from my patients and their families about the painful regret that comes from not speaking these most basic feelings. Again and again, I’ve witnessed the value of stating the obvious. When you love someone, it is never too soon to say, “I love you,” or premature to say, “Thank you,” “I forgive you,” or “Will you please forgive me?” When there is nothing of profound importance left unsaid, relationships tend to take on an aspect of celebration, as they should.”

 “When you love someone, it is never too soon to say, “I love you,” or premature to say, “Thank you,” “I forgive you,” or “Will you please forgive me?” When there is nothing of profound importance left unsaid, relationships tend to take on an aspect of celebration, as they should.”

“I also encourage them to say good-bye. ..The word good-bye derives from “God be with you,” a blessing that was traditionally given at parting and, in some churches”

During Holy Week, we focus on an intense experience of saying goodbye.  Grief is a very perilous and important experience in every way. When we grieve, we don’t get our way.  When we fail to grieve, we don’t really live.

This week, liturgically, we start moving toward some plain speaking, gospel wise.  Forgiveness is costly.  Love wins, death loses, but not without shedding blood and dying.    Commitments:  simple, plain.  Nothing complicated, but not easy.  And you need to say some things that seem simple, but are really doors into the rich treasures of the heart.

I need forgiveness. 

I know you love me, God.

I love you. 

Thank you for what you’ve done. 

Here I am.

The extraordinary center of our gospel may well be in 2 Corinthians 5 when Paul says

19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

Far more of our lives are engaged with these two verses than almost anything else other than eating, sleeping and breathing–reconciling ourselves to life, God, our histories, our destiny, limits, and, finally, one another.  “Be reconciled” is a wonderful word for us this week.  Simple words.

 

For more about Ira Byock’s book, click the image below.

 

 

Remembering

This wonderful arrangement was written by our minister of music, Dr. Terre Johnson, after the Enterprise tornado a few years ago that killed several students at the local high school.  It has been performed across the country, including the White House.  I hope it blesses you today.  There is hope.

I put it here today as I mourn the third anniversary of the death of my dear friend, Philip Wise, gone far too soon from cancer at age sixty.  God be with us all in our sorrows, that they purify and call us to our better selves and to the depths of love.

Rest in peace, my friend.  

“Death Gospel,” Art and Life

The website “Sightings” put out an interesting piece this week.  Thanks to my good friend and blog reader Lamon Brown for forwarding this to me.  It is a piece on the music of Adam Arcuragi.  I was unfamiliar with Arcuragi, but immediately was drawn to go read the piece and the NPR interview of Arcuragi.  His album Like a Fire that Consumes All Before It, writes M. Cooper Harriss

has raised interest in the popular-musical category of “Death Gospel,” a metaphysically attuned variety of the Americana genre named by Arcuragi. Death Gospel is not sonically related to “Death Metal” (a heavier

Adam Arcuragi

Heavy Metal music); nor is it overtly “gospel” music. Arcuragi describes it in a recent Huffington Post interview as “anything that sees the inevitability of death as a reason to celebrate the special wonder that is being alive and sentient. That’s the hope with the songs. . . . It is exciting that we can reflect upon it as intelligent life and do something to make that wonder manifest.” Arcuragi’s interview attributes little theological import to the gospel portion of his category, noting instead his love of 2/2 time and pointing to a number of historical antecedents such as Claude Ely and Johnny Cash, and more recent–and some might say more “secular”–acts including Neko Case and the Flaming Lips.

I was immediately drawn to this for a couple of reasons.  First, because in my work as a minister, I am around death and dying on almost a weekly basis.  I’m guessing my funerals are now in the hundreds over 32 years of work.  I have buried old people, babies and everyone in between.  Suicides, cancer, tragedies, fires, drowning, car wrecks, sweet release from Alzheimers, folks whose loved ones and friends were all gone, and those who left too soon.  On only a few occasions did I bury people no one was sad to see go.   One funeral prompted a member to come, “Just to see what you were going to say about him, Preacher.”

Yet in a recent gathering of ministers when I asked the question, “If you quit your job now, what would you miss most?” children and funerals were at the top of everyone’s list.  Way ahead of committees, raising money, and listening to people comment on our appearance every Sunday.  We all understood—there is something holy about death and the grave.  It takes us to an edge of life that paradoxically renders it precious and intoxicating.  All the people in one’s life, gathered together, all the stories and sadness, food and laughter in one place.  Everything stops for a few days, no matter how “busy” we are, it’s not too busy for this.

Second, it is intriguing because I have, oddly, found myself writing about death a lot in songs.  I have one about a man remembering the love of his life just after she has died, another about a man named “Michael” who faces death from cancer, a song I wrote in college, but added a bittersweet fourth verse years later.  I have one called, “Hole in the Ground” that is so morbid I have never performed it, and another called, “Farewell,  Baby Girl,” about an anonymous newborn found floating in the Chattahoochie River when I pastored in South Georgia.  While some of it is fictitious, the basic story is real—a tiny infant, drowned by her parents, shortly after birth.  I donated my services to bury the child in a pauper’s area where babies were buried in our local cemetery called, “Babyland.”  What resulted was a song so somber that my wife never likes to hear it performed.  I’ve only done it once.

Don Wendorf and I last night at the Moonlight photo by Keith Harrelson

I had a great time in concert last night at the Moonlight on the Mountain venue, appearing with Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne.  Afterwards I found myself engaged into two intriguing conversations. One was with a fellow musician who is a Christian and an English teacher, and we had a fairly substantial conversation about suffering .

I did a little more milling around and found myself standing at the car talking with another new friend about science, evolution and the possibility of real faith.  My acquaintance commented that the unreality of his childhood religion, its failure to look at its own shortcomings, made faith quite hard.

Acoustic music fans are serious about their music.  I continually find the most profound conversations that happen in that place, where artists write gritty, funny and sometimes raw takes on life.  That all of this happened at the end of a musical performance in which I did not do any overtly Christian songs is rather remarkable.  It does make me wonder if the guaranteed happy praise and triumphalism of too much Christian music is rooted in a shallow theology underneath that cannot paint life with much reality because it renders death as unreal.

We are actually more comfortable with the denial of death. After all, when one of the most powerful commendations of many so-called “different kind of churches” is their claim that they make church fun, what in the world is that? And then we go and hear far more difficult truths from our secular songwriters, who often are actually taking all these things seriously.  Strange.

I started singing in the Jesus movement in one of the early youth choirs.  I remember one song in a musical called, “Life,” by Otis Skillings, when early contemporary Christian writers were cranking out material for a hungry marketplace of churches.  I remember very little about the musical.  I loved singing.  I only remember one line, though:  “LIFE, pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.”  It sounded musically like elevator music.  Even then I thought, “This is pretty shabby.”  True art tells truth, it doesn’t gloss over it or make it more palatable with shortcuts through the hard places.  Tell the truth—onto every cheek some tears must fall.  And then…REAL life can break through.   I have another song that puts it this way, “Life is for real.”  Without death, you never know.

CLICK HERE to listen to “Farewell, Baby Girl”

Lessons From the Waiting Room

In all the uproar of 9-11, a lot of personal history got pushed out of view.  A month later, ten years ago, whatever was going on was dwarfed by a morning that changed the world forever.  So it is surprising to me to reconnect to anniversaries that I thought were some other time.

Ten years ago, on August 13, 2001, my sister underwent surgery for breast cancer.  Her situation was serious, she was young—in her thirties—for such a thing.  Our family was, like all families in such a moment, devastated and anxious.

As a minister, Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays.  That week, though, I was on the other side, sitting in a waiting room in an Atlanta hospital with my parents, brother-in-law, and a parade of friends and church folks coming by to check on us. This week she marked her tenth anniversary without a recurrence and we rejoice even as we encourage all those who fight against breast cancer.

I wrote about that day in the waiting room, ten years ago.  And since it got lost in what happened a month later, I went back to read it again.  As we rejoice today, I share these words again.  Maybe they will help someone who isn’t so far down the road as we are right now.  These were my “Lessons from the Waiting Room.”

  • The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom.  You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say.  Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
  • There are so many feelings for just one day.  Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect him.  Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation.  They all pass through.  All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
  • People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
  • Family, friends and church members are a comfort.  You don’t have to say much.  Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you.  All day long people came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.”  It was truly humbling.  Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away.  Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
  • It is neat to just be “her brother from out of town.”
  • Hospital food must come from a single warehouse.  I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal.  Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit.
  • Time is timeless in a hospital.  That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time.  “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked.  “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.)  It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
  • You overhear some really interesting conversations.  Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently.  “No, no, no, your Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…”  That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day.  I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew.  “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
  • There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
  • There are a lot of people in trouble in this world.  People from everywhere.  People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
  • Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped.  God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.

    My wonderful sister ten years later