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December 13, 2004

Sermon to myself

Let’s make sure we get this straight right from the beginning: cancer is your enemy.

Cancer is a dark, evil, malevolent terrorist of a disease and the only thing that will make it happy is your death. Any attempts to rationalize cancer as a self-help program, a series of instructions, God’s will or a test of some sort is the medical equivalent of negotiating with terrorists. Don’t do it.

God didn’t give you cancer. Did you get that?

Let me say it again: God didn’t give you cancer.

You got cancer because sometimes, in this world, people get sick. The world is fallen. It is sick with sin and disease and poverty and anger and hunger and greed. Humans are frail and sometimes, they get sick. Sometimes they even get cancer.

During my first course of chemotherapy I asked a lot of questions that boiled down to “why me?” After all, I had never smoked, I wasn’t a drinker, I didn’t do drugs and I didn’t run around with loose women. In most southern country churches like the one I grew up in, those are the big four. So why would I get cancer? Why me?

On this side of the disease, I don’t ask “why me?” anymore. Instead, I have found that a healthier point of view leads to the question “why not me?” I’m not Superman. Being a Christian doesn’t make me bulletproof or magically immune to disease. I am human and sometimes humans get sick.

One memorable late morning during my second round of chemotherapy, a young lady who was one of my peers from a local church group stopped to visit in my hospital room. During the course of the conversation, she asked “What is Jesus teaching you in all this?”

Do me a favor and don’t ever ask anyone that question.

My reaction was a babbled, stammered answer, followed by guilt. Should I be learning? Was my faith so weak that I couldn’t see that God had given me cancer to teach me something? Apparently, to this young woman, I had been so wrapped up in myself, in being sick and throwing up all day and fearing for my life, that I had taken my eyes off Jesus.

Here’s an important resource to remember: when you have cancer, you’re allowed to be wrapped up in yourself. You’re allowed to act in your own best interests. Sometimes, you’re even allowed to be selfish. When you’re under attack by an uncaring, non-negotiable disease, the cure of which is taking in poison on purpose, I think it’s just fine with God if you don’t start preparing Bible Studies right away.

Don’t get me wrong; I learned a great deal from my experience with cancer. I learned how to love others better. I learned that everyone has pain in their lives that is just as real to them as mine is to me, no matter how “glamorous” cancer sounds. I was compelled into ministry by my time fighting cancer. I learned a new glossary and I learned how to take control of my own treatment and my own life.

But notice that each of those sentences starts with the word “I”.

Cancer is an evil. Cancer is an enemy. It wants you dead and it is using your own body to kill you. Anything good that comes from cancer is something that you produce. All the things I take with me from my experience with cancer, I chose to take. I created the good that came from cancer. On its own, nothing good can come of it. It is evil.

God can help you learn and grow from an experience with disease, but never dare be so petty and misguided as to think that God gave someone cancer to teach them a lesson, or worse, to punish them. That’s not the God I worship and if your God sits in the sky and picks sinners to afflict with cancer while others get off scot-free, then we worship different Gods.

Part of being human is learning to live with unanswered questions. Most folks, however, especially church folks, like to have an answer pre-packaged for everything. They think that since they’re Christians that life, and God, is supposed to be completely understandable.

So well-meaning church folks see someone with cancer and, lacking a better answer, blame God. After all, everything has to have a Biblical purpose doesn’t it? The problem is that, in the process, we leave behind a trail of cancer patients who fight guilt and who come to see God as an invisible force just waiting to punish them with horrific diseases for no real reason.

Shame on the church for its obsessive-compulsive need to have an explanation for everything. Life is mystery. More than that, being a Christian means embracing mystery.

“Ah Horatio, there's more in this heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy," Hamlet said. There is more to God, and more to life, than we will ever understand. We just aren’t wired for it as finite humans.

It is enough, in the course of a chemotherapy treatment, to know that God loves you and wants you to be well. It is enough to know that you got sick because you’re a human and sometimes humans get sick. It is enough to know that cancer is never your friend and nothing good can come out of cancer unless you choose to take it yourself.

You are alive today, and sometimes, that's enough.

*UPDATE: My latest cancer news is two posts down. If you have a friend with cancer, maybe they'd like to read this?*

Posted by Dan at December 13, 2004 08:57 PM

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Once you beat this thing, you're going to collect these essays into a book, no? I can't imagine what you're going through, but your eloquence, the way you capture the moment and all it entails, deserves a wider audience.

And I want my signed copy, and to say I knew you when . . .

Keep us updated; keep up.

Posted by: folkbum at December 14, 2004 08:48 AM

Man, do I miss you, Dan.

There I was, in the middle of a stinkin' WAR, for the love of all that's holy. Bombs, rockets, people shooting at me, you name it. Doing things I couldn't tell anyone for the sake of people who, if I interpret the situation correctly, are going to end up throwing it away. And it was the SECOND trip out there.

I was frequently scared. Not so much of dying as of dying so far away from the people I love. It was rough.

Then I met you, in a virtual sense. It seemed that whenever things would get the most tense, when it seemed like the bad guys were determined that they were going to blow up the exact spot where I worked, or ate, or slept, and there was nothing I could do but wait, you would come up with one of those discussion topics from that crazy quiz of yours. It was like God himself was whispering to you when I needed a diversion.

I'll never forget you, Dan. And when I get There, after I have spent a few hundred years with the One that brought us There, we'll sit down and have that talk about which Spider Man villian would have been the best on screen.

Thank you for keeping this place up, Stephanie. I would have written to you personally, but I can't find an address for you, and Dan's seems to have been closed.

Posted by: Mr. E. [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 1, 2006 01:18 PM

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