Have you ever been in that place where you seem to be surrounded with horrific things? As I write, two of my closest friends on the planet are fighting cancer. This morning I got word that an amazing young man with cancer, for whom I had done premarital counseling and then his wedding in 2010, succumbed to his disease this morning. I gotta be honest, it’s starting to get to me. I’m sick of cancer.
Yes, we pastors and counselors are the people frequently called on to do funerals, to talk/walk people through their darkest times. This is a deep privilege. Though I have never looked forward to officiating a funeral, I always find them to be one of the most valuable things I do. At the same time, I too have my moments where I just wanna scream, “ENOUGH!” I’m sick of the way people have to suffer. I’m tired of seeing cancer and death work their disgusting chaos in the lives of people I love. I’m sick of young lives cut short, dashing ebullient dreams against razor rocks. It makes me so angry, I just want to — do…uh…anything? That’s it. The helplessness. The sense that all there is to offer as you watch a loved one suffer is words which, let’s face it, everyone knows are totally insufficient. I’m really, really sick of cancer.
My theology doesn’t accommodate this. I mean it does, theoretically, so as long as I’m talking about theoretical suffering and death, I’m fine. But when suffering and/or death come to someone I know, someone I love, everything crumbles to the floor in a pathetic heap. Nothing makes it better. I’m really frickin’ sick of cancer.
I’m pissed, sick to death of the things we are called to suffer in this world. I am angry for my suffering friends. I’m not a violent person, so my anger does the only thing it can do, which is eat away at me like a cancer of its own, which it does, day after day, until I find I have nothing left to give to others. What do I do in these times? I do all I know to do.
- Through sheer willpower, I force myself to stop twitching. I remember a distant time when my baby girls were so agitated they couldn’t stop crying. I would get out a blanket and wrap them as tightly as possible, and they would know they were held, that they were safe, that there was nothing to fear. And so day after day I take a few steps from my office to my library, and I sit down in my chair, and I get quiet. I stop twitching. I allow silence (a.k.a. “peace,” a.k.a., “God”) to enfold me on every side and I sit until I, too, know that I and my suffering friends are held, that we are safe, that there is nothing to fear, despite all appearances.
- I remind myself of what I most deeply believe — that it’s all being redeemed, that even death is temporary. While this doesn’t do a single thing to take away the hurt, it screws my head back on straight. It puts everything in perspective.
These two things, taken together, get me back to where I most need to be. They allow me to stop kicking against things over which I have no control. They remind me that not only can I not change the world, but I don’t have to. They relieve me of the responsibility of having to fix everything. Then I can find it in myself to help others again. I can help others bear their burdens only when I remember that a) they are ultimately not my burdens, and b) I don’t have to fix them. It is enough to simply be present, and to love.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m really, super sick of cancer, really mad at it. But now, like a child who has had his tantrum — crying, kicking the walls, Matchbox cars, Play-doh, and crayons strewn all around the room — I am tired. I must allow myself to drift into the place of rest. I know I will not return to a cancer-free world. My suffering friends will still be suffering, and as long as they are suffering I will suffer too. But I will be rested, better able to help them bear the burdens that, in this season, are theirs to bear.
Lamentations 3:19-32 (MSG)
19 I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness, the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
20 I remember it all—oh, how well I remember— the feeling of hitting the bottom.
21 But there’s one other thing I remember, and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:
22 GOD’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
23 They’re created new every morning. How great your faithfulness!
24 I’m sticking with GOD (I say it over and over). He’s all I’ve got left.
25 GOD proves to be good to the man who passionately waits, to the woman who diligently seeks.
26 It’s a good thing to quietly hope, quietly hope for help from GOD.
27 It’s a good thing when you’re young to stick it out through the hard times.
28 When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence.
29 Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions: Wait for hope to appear.
30 Don’t run from trouble. Take it full-face. The “worst” is never the worst.
31 Why? Because the Master won’t ever walk out and fail to return.
32 If he works severely, he also works tenderly. His stockpiles of loyal love are immense.