Tag Archives: cancer

And Don’t Forget To Dance

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

-John Lennon
Imagine (1971)

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 21:3-4 (ESV)

I hate to keep picking on Joe and Heidi, but their continual battle with cancer is a continual inspiration to me. More than that, it’s their courage, faith, and humor in the face of living a nearly impossible life that is the real inspiration. It puts to shame most of us who complain about our rather modest discomforts.

The first thing I thought of when I saw the photo of Joe and Heidi dancing, and knowing something about the hardships they face was, “this is what it must be like to watch people dancing in Heaven.” Then I thought about the “no more tears” portion from John’s Revelation. Then I thought about writing.

And here I am.

But what if, as John Lennon suggested, that there is no Heaven. What if we face insurmountable hardships, heartbreak, tragedy, and sorrow with no hope and no end except a black and empty death? How would that change us? What would it make human behavior like?

Or is this why the world is in the shape it’s in today? Because the majority of the world, as Lennon suggested, believes there is no Heaven…no accountability…no God?

I know I’m going to experience some serious “blowback” about that comment from secular humanists and atheists who see themselves as the greater moral force in the world and I can’t say they’re not. It doesn’t take a belief in God in order to do good. However, I think it takes such a belief to give it all a greater meaning beyond our temporal context. But some atheists cast themselves in the superior role because they don’t do good just to satisfy some abstract and alien being sitting in judgment on a throne. They do so because…um, why? Because it’s the right thing to do? But how do they know? How does anyone know?

Where do we get the idea that something is good and some other thing isn’t? What is “good” and what is “evil?” How do you know? If you’re an atheist, there is no moral structure attached to your belief since not believing in God isn’t value laden. It simply means you don’t believe a supernatural being created the universe and is involved in our lives.

What if there is no Heaven for Joe and Heidi? What would it mean in terms of the overwhelming fight they’ve been waging against cancer? Have they been praying to empty air? Has the courage they’ve gotten from faith been in vain?

Based on Lennon’s lyrics, he seemed to believe that if we deconstructed all human (and supernatural) infrastructures, organizations, groupings, and distinctions, the world of human beings would be a better place. Maybe it would be, I don’t know. It won’t happen because human beings absolutely need to identify, label, and organize their environment in order to make any sort of sense of it. All people groups use two basic names. One for themselves and the other for everyone else. Those names mean something to them and to us. Of course, they might not mean the same things.

When I say I’m a Christian, I mean a particular thing. Other people hear that label and perhaps comprehend it in a different way than I do. Some people hear that label and comprehend it in the most negative possible light. In their world, they have one name for themselves, which means they’re “good”, but the name “Christian” or “Jew” means something that bad, wrong, immoral, or evil (and where did the concepts of good and evil come from, anyway?)

But from inside my point of view and from inside my faith, I don’t perceive my faith to be evil. I know I am not a perfect person and I have made mistakes. I’ll make mistakes again. I don’t brag about it or enjoy it, but that’s part of what it is to be a flawed human being living in an broken world. And after all, human beings broke it.

I’m accountable not just to other human beings (my wife, my family, my employer, the government), but I’m accountable to a force that is larger than human institutions and an intelligence that comprehends the infinite mysteries of the universe. For me, there is a greater sense of morality and ethics that exists and One who is the origin of what it is to be good or to be evil.

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” –Romans 7:7 (ESV)

Sometimes it helps to have an external standard to help us define our role in life. For those of us who have faith, God is that standard. For those without faith, I suppose our government, or the news media, or a social organization will have to do. I can’t tell anyone else how to live their lives, but it would be wonderful if others would stop insisting they have the right to tell me to abandon my faith. But that’s the way of the world. If faith isn’t strong enough to withstand the winds of criticism from society, it will never stand up against the brutal storms of some disaster like cancer.

So Joe and Heidi showed me what it’s like to dance in Heaven this morning. As I looked at their photo, all of the sorrow and grief and hostility of the world surrounding me momentarily faded away. Imagine there is no Heaven if you want. But grasping hold of my faith not only gives me peace about the future, but the strength to carry on in the harsh and uncertain present and to try to do a little good in the world I live in every day. I pray, whoever you are reading this, that you can find the same.

In your worldly business, just do what needs to be done and trust in G-d to fill in the rest.

In your spiritual business, however, you’ll have to take the whole thing on your own shoulders. Don’t rely on G-d to heal the sick, help the poor, educate the ignorant and teach you Torah.

He’s relying on you.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Make it Your Business”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

And don’t forget to dance.

Hope in Hopelessness

Last week at the Western Wall, I asked an elderly man to put on tefillin. He strongly refused.

I asked him, “When was the last time you put on tefillin?”

He smiled and proudly said, “72 years ago!” He held out his arm to show me the fading tattooed numbers. “1938,” he said. “It was the day of Kristallnacht. Do you know what Kristallnacht is?”

“Of course I do,” I told him.

“Two hundred and sixty-seven synagogues were burned down in one night. They burned down our synagogue, too. My tefillin were burnt up, and I have never put them on again,” he said.

“I have a friend who was in the camps, too,” I quickly said, “and he not only puts on tefillin today, but he even put them onto others inside the camp! Do you want to hear how he got tefillin into the camp?”

“Yes,” he said strongly. “How did he get them in there?”

-Gutman Locks
“Tefillin After 72 Years”
Stories of the Holocaust series

I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to experience the horrors of the Holocaust. Like many Americans, I live a relatively comfortable life. I don’t really know what it’s like to go without adequate food, shelter, or clothing. I’ve been in the hospital before, but remain fairly healthy. I was once beaten by several men during a riot when I was 16 and spent some time recovering, but I was home and eventually after over a year, I began to let myself feel safe again. In short, I’ve faced a certain number of challenges over my lifetime, but none have been overly difficult.

I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to experience the horrors of the Holocaust.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a wife who is struggling with cancer and who may die.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be the father of terminally ill child.

Frankly, I don’t want to imagine, let alone have to actually face such hideous tragedies in life. I don’t know how people do it and, I’m ashamed to say, I don’t even know how people of faith do it.

Where do you find hope in hopelessness? It’s one thing to say “I rely on my God for my strength,” and it’s another thing to actually live it out, one day at a time, one horrible, agonizing minute at a time. What can you do when someone delivers the terrible news and your courage melts like a plastic sandwich bag in the face of an inferno? What do you do when you’re a young, teenage boy and you and your mates are being herded into the gas chambers by the Nazis and you have only minutes to live?

“He began his story. The Nazis had come to the ghetto and grabbed 137 young boys. He told me that only five of them survived. Only five.

“He was thirteen and a half years old. He was wearing the high boots that his father had bought him, and when he saw them coming, he stuffed his tefillin into one boot and his prayerbook in the other.

“They pushed the boys into a cattle car and drove them to the death camp, not far from the ghetto. When the train stopped, they slid open the side of the cattle car and immediately began pushing them toward the open door of the gas chamber. The boys were frightened and cried out. They asked Laibel, ‘What should we do?’ He told them, ‘We’re going to stand in rows five across, and we’re going to march right into that gas chamber singing a song of faith, the “Ani Maamin.”’ And they did just that. They stood in rows five across, and started singing and marching right into the chamber.

“The guards became so confused that they did not know what to do. They screamed, ‘You can’t do that! No one has ever done such a thing before. Stop it! Stop it at once! Here! Go over there to the showers instead!’

“They pushed them over to the showers, and forced them to undress and throw their clothing into a pile in the middle of the floor. They made them empty their shoes, and the tefillin and prayerbook fell out onto the pile.

“After the shower, when they were dressed in camp clothes and were being pushed out, past the pile of their clothes, Laibel saw his tefillin and prayerbook lying there. He wanted so badly to run and pick them up, but terrifying guards were watching. He said to the boys, ‘I did something for you, so now you do something for me.’

“‘Whatever you want,’ they said. ‘You saved our lives.’

“He said, ‘When I give the signal, start a fight and scream out loud. Okay . . . now!’ The boys started to fight and scream. The guards ran over and tried to pull them apart, but they wouldn’t stop fighting. In the confusion, he ran over and grabbed his tefillin and prayerbook, and hid them under his arms.

Laibel not only managed to retrieve his tefillin but he wore them (clandestinely) in the camp and helped other Jews wear them, too. In the story commemorating his courage, we discover him as an old man today helping men wear tefillin at the Kotel.

And he looked me in the eye and said, ‘And I put tefillin on other men, too.’ I started to cry, and I kissed him on his yarmulke.

“The day after Laibel told me his story, there was a soldier at the Western Wall who wouldn’t put on tefillin. No matter what I said, he simply refused. Then I told him Laibel’s story, and he quickly said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’

“And you can do it, too,” I said to the elderly gentleman who hadn’t donned tefillin in 72 years, as I gently slid the tefillin I was holding onto his arm. He said the blessing and started to cry. We said the Shema, and he prayed for his family. He began to smile even while the tears were streaming down his face. A crowd gathered around and congratulated him on overcoming all those years of rejection.

You do not always succeed, but you always have to try.

If there has ever been a hopeless place on earth, it was in the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. Even those who were not immediately killed expected to die a lingering and torturous death. Even those who survived and who were liberated didn’t expect to live any sort of “normal” Jewish life again. Who could after seeing what they saw and experiencing what they lived through? Even after more than seven decades, Holocaust survivors are suffering delayed post-traumatic stress disorder. The statement is so obvious, it’s almost laughable to report it in the media. Of course they’re suffering after seventy years? Who wouldn’t?

But after over seventy years, some have turned suffering and hopelessness into hope, not just for themselves but for each other. Laibel turns hopelessness into hope every time he helps another Jewish man don tefillin and pray at the Kotel. A Jewish man who hadn’t worn tefillin in seventy-two years because of the nightmare of Kristallnacht put on tefillin again because of Laibel’s inspiration, “said the blessing and started to cry.”

While most of us have never faced such horrendous, nightmarish, ghastly experiences as those of Holocaust survivors, as those who are battling desperately invasive cancer, as those who are anxiously trying to comfort a dying child, we still know the world is filled with hopelessness and despair. All of us face some sort of problem, some sort of challenge, something that makes us want to give up our fight to move forward or maybe even the fight to live.

I have no magic to give you. I have no secret formula with which you can overcome your hardships or worries or fears or tears. I can say “rely on God” but for even those men and women who do rely on Him with an almost superhuman faith and courage, the battle is hard and surrender to the darkness is a constant companion.

But amazingly there is still hope. Laibel must be well over eighty years old and for him, hope is helping just one more man put on tefillin, maybe for the first time in decades, and speak words of blessing to God. Hope is saying, “I love you” to a dying little boy. Hope is continuing to pray for your spouse, even though multiple organs are compromised by cancer and years of radiation and chemotherapy haven’t put the demon back in the bottle.

Hope is in the tears you cry. Hope is in your screams of anguish. Hope is being able to go on when life is impossible. Hope is a man learning how to pray again while crying after seventy-two years.

Hope is the faint light of a tiny candle holding the encroaching abyss at bay.

Hope is God.


Why Does God Make Us Laugh?

OK, the better way to ask that question is, “why did God give us the ability to laugh?” I read a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip this morning (see below) and was struck by the absolute profound nature of the transaction between the two main characters. While Calvin remarks that it seems odd evolution should give us the ability to laugh at absurdity, my perspective allows me to attribute our ability to laugh to God.

Returning to Calvin’s’ question, why do we a laugh at the absurd? Why would God make us so that we would have such a strange physiological response to nonsense and further, why do we seem to enjoy it? It’s like watching an old Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy short comedy film. I still love them, even though in many ways, they are hopelessly archaic…and incredibly silly. They make me laugh.

But while Calvin muses about the survival benefit of laughter in an evolutionary scheme of things, I ask the question of an intelligent and purposeful God. Why do we laugh at the absurdities of life? Directing the question to God makes Hobbes’ answer all the more frightening to me:

I suppose if we couldn’t laugh at things that don’t make sense, we couldn’t react to a lot of life.

That implies a couple of things. That a lot of what happens to us is nonsensical, absurd, or just plain crazy. And that if we couldn’t laugh at the strangeness of life, we wouldn’t have any other way of responding to it.

I’m not saying that life is endlessly funny. In many ways, life is almost endlessly tragic. Just turn on the local TV news or watch CNN for an hour and you’ll see what I mean. But then again, Calvin and Hobbes aren’t talking about humor, they’re talking about the strange, the bizarre, and probably the tragic and the hopeless. Not that we should laugh at the trouble and hardship of others, but often the only thing we can do when the bizarre little twists and turns of laugh overwhelm us and threaten to engulf us is to laugh.

My friend Joe Hendricks is a perfect example of what I mean. As he and his wife Heidi struggle in their continual wrestling match with cancer, the tool they most often use to combat despair and depression is humor. I’m not sure I’d find that many laughs if I were in their shoes (and I’m sure Heidi’s shoes wouldn’t even come close to fitting, anyway), but it works for them. Maybe it works for us to as we watch them…as I watch them, and feel utterly powerless to do anything to help them.

Is that why God gave us the ability to laugh? So we could also endure our own hideous hardships and the heartbreaking experiences of others without completely falling apart?

I’ve heard it said on many occasions that it’s faith that gets us through the tough times but I wonder if it’s really laughter? I wonder, when push comes to shove, if prayer is the most important way we can respond when faced with the horrible and insane events of our world?

How ironic if the sole purpose of having a sense of humor is to keep us from crying all the time when we’re alone and when we’re hurt and when we’re scared.

And when life makes absolutely no sense at all and we feel completely out of control.

Being Crushed

This scan report is heartbreaking.

Heidi’s cancer has progressed everywhere: lungs, bones and most dangerously, in the liver. This afternoon they start Heidi on Taxotere. She is so brave.

Thanks for helping us get through this. This week’s going to be really tough, getting used to the bad news and also Heidi’s new side effects with Taxotere. — at SCCA.

Scenes from Our Cancer Battle

I wrote about Joe and Heidi’s cancer battle about a week ago and extended the conversation in a “morning meditation” called Unavoidable a few days later. Today, Joe posted the latest “scene” on Facebook. It was devastating.

I suppose I could do a Google search on inspirational Bible quotes, but that’s not really “me” and I doubt it would really help. Throwing religious platitudes and the same standard Bible verses at people who are in agony is a lot like throwing a pail of water onto the Sun in a vain attempt to quench nuclear fusion.

It was almost four years ago when my friend Dale Stucker said good-bye for the last time to his beloved wife Cyndy. She had fought cancer for so very long, but in the end, it consumed virtually every system in her body. But by God’s grace it never consumed her spirit.

No I’m not anticipating the worst but it’s hard not to think about it right now.

It’s like my thoughts are a little gerbil in a cage running around and around and around trying to get somewhere and getting nowhere. I keep thinking “pray, pray, pray” but people “pray, pray, pray” all the time and other people still “die, die, die” all the time.

This is the part about God that’s really hard for me to understand. I know, I know. For the glory of God, right? Swell. Say that when you have a wife like Cyndy or Heidi who has been fighting a years-long, exhaustive battle and you absolutely, positively can’t do anything about it. Say that if you’re watching it all happen from the outside and you desperately want to help and you absolutely, positively can’t do anything about it.

So what can I do about it. Absolutely, positively nothing.

So what am I doing? I’m writing because that’s what I do when I’m helpless and ineffectual. For me, writing is like praying. Maybe when I’m writing, I’m closer to God than when I’m not. I don’t know how it works.

There’s only one other place to go and it’s been a place I don’t like to go. It’s not that I don’t like going to God, but this is a place where He’s big and scary and He might not give me the answers I want. So I suck up my courage and I walk down that long spiral staircase into the bottom of a big, dark hole in the ground where I can be alone, just me and Him.

Part of me wants to scream at God, “Just what the heck do you think you’re doing? Haven’t you been paying attention? She needs you! She’s dying! DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!”

OK, so maybe I’m going to hell for that one, I don’t know.

Another part of me wants to curl up into a fetal position and make myself as small as I can make all six-foot, three inches of me, and softly sob into the dirt underneath me, “Please, please, please, if you’ve got an ounce of compassion and caring for this woman, please, please don’t do this to her.”

Maybe I’m going to hell for that one, too.

If there’s one thing I learned from the book of Job, it’s that He who makes the Universe, makes the rules. You don’t talk back to God. But then, I never understood the book of Job, either. In the end, God gives Job back everything he lost, including new kids. Except it never explains that kids aren’t these interchangeable little spark plugs where one will do just as well as another. If one child, one unique and precious son or daughter dies, having another one does not replace the first and it doesn’t make the hurt go away.

So I don’t understand you, God.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth. –Psalm 121:1-2

I’m not offering that to Joe and Heidi as some sort of comfort, I’m offering it as a plea to God. I know You don’t have to care, and even if You care, You don’t have to answer our prayers. And even if You answer our prayers, the answer doesn’t have to be what we want it to be.

There is an immeasurable, unending, limitless, infinite, gargantuan supply of human pain and suffering out there in the world and in here in all of our hearts. Just turn on the evening news and you’ll be flooded with it. And yes, I want it all to stop. And yes, I realize it won’t stop until the Messiah returns. And yes, I understand that bad things happen to good people and we just have to deal with it.

But You can’t stop me from lifting my eyes to the hills and looking for Your help.

The most poignant line uttered by Job through his long agony was, Though he slay me, I will hope in him…” (Job 13:15) In the end, when all of our enthusiasm and optimism and strength and even when our prayers are exhausted and we can’t send another syllable into the ear of God, we only have our hope in God’s presence.

In tomorrow’s morning meditation, I’m going to say something about God finally lifting His thumb off my skull and relieving the pressure, but although that is true in terms of one circumstance, the weight of God’s presence in a world where Heidi has cancer is pressing me to the floor, as the Shekinah did to Moses when it entered the newly constructed Tabernacle.

And like Moses and like the Priests in Solomon’s Temple, I am at once grateful for the presence of God and completely helpless before Him, unable to rise or even move.

And like the Children of Israel, gathered pensively with trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai, I wait for God to speak.

Please God, let it be good news. Joe and Heidi are buried under the weight of their sorrow.

Let the weight of Your glory cover us
Let the life of Your river flow
Let the truth of Your kingdom reign in us
Let the weight of Your glory
Let the weight of Your glory fall

-Paul Wilbur
Let the Weight of Your Glory Fall (YouTube)




It was the summer of 1930, before most of these things had happened…It was several months since I had been in London, and then only in passing, so I had really hardly had seen Father at all since he had entered the hospital the autumn before.

So all of us went to the hospital. Father was in a ward. We had arrived much too early and had to wait. We were in a new wing of the big hospital. The floor was shiny and clean. Vaguely depressed by the smell of sickness and disinfectant and the general medical small that all hospitals have, we sat in a corridor downstairs for upwards of half an hour…

Finally, the clock we had been watching got around to the appropriate hour; we went up an elevator. They all knew where the ward was – it was a different ward. I think they had changed his ward two or three times. And he had had more than one operation. But none of them had been successful.

We went into the ward. Father was in bed, to the left, just as you went in the door.

And when I saw him, I knew at once there was no hope of his living much longer. His face was swollen. His eyes were not clear but, above all, the tumor had raised a tremendous swelling on his forehead.

I said: “How are you, Father?”

He looked at me and put forth his hand, in a confused and unhappy way, and I realized that he could no longer even speak. But at the same time, you could see that he knew us, and knew what was going on, and that his mind was clear, and that he understood everything.

But the sorrow of his great helplessness suddenly fell upon me like a mountain. I was crushed by it. The tears sprang to my eyes. Nobody said anything more.

I hid my face in the blanket and cried. And poor Father wept, too. The others stood by. It was excruciatingly sad. We were completely helpless. There was nothing anyone could do.

What could I make of so much suffering? There was no way for me, or for anyone else in the family, to get anything out of it. It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief. You had to take it, like an animal. We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death. You just had to take it, like a dumb animal. Try to avoid it, if you could. But you must eventually reach the point where you can’t avoid it any more. Take it. Try to stupefy yourself, if you like, so that it won’t hurt so much. But you will always have to take some of it. And it will all devour you in the end.

-Thomas Merton
“Chapter Three: The Harrowing of Hell”
pp 90-91
The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith

Reading this part of the chapter doesn’t hurt so much today as it did when I first read it a day or two ago. It doesn’t hurt so much as it did when I read it the day after writing about Joe and Heidi’s latest scene from their cancer battle. Merton was about 17 years old when he visited his dying Father in the London hospital as described above. He had gone through a few vague encounters with religion up to that point in his life, but none yet with God. So as he said, facing his father’s terrible illness and imminent death was like a “dumb animal” facing a tragedy it could not avoid and had no ability to understand.

Does faith make tragedy easier to handle? Joe and Heidi think so. I can’t imagine what that must be like, and frankly, coward that I am, I don’t want to imagine. Who actually wants to face that and have their faith tested? Peter, James, and John had their faith tested at Gethsemane (Mark 14:32:42) and it was found wanting.

My friend Leah said that having faith helps. When her husband died in a sudden accident many years ago, she went around in a fog for the first twenty-four hours, but after that, it was her faith in God and the certainty of the resurrection that sustained her. It was still “the year from hell” in which she grieved terribly, and any hint of joy was fleeting if present at all, but the presence of God was with her the entire time. She was not alone.

I suspect Merton was alone in his grief and sorrow when he visited his father in the hospital, even though he was surrounded by family. God was there too, but no one noticed. No one except Merton’s father, that is.

In fact, if he could not talk, there were other things he could do. One day I found his bed covered with little sheets of blue note-paper on which he had been drawing. And the drawings were real drawings. But they were unlike anything he had ever done before – pictures of little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.

Of us all, Father was the only one who really had any kind of faith. And I do not doubt that he had very much of it, and that behind the walls of isolation, his intelligence and his will, unimpaired, and not hampered in any essential way by the partial obstruction of some of his senses, were turned to God, and communed with God Who was with him and in him, and Who gave him, as I believe, light to understand and to make use of his suffering for his own good, and to perfect his soul. It was a great soul, large, full of natural charity. He was a man of exceptional intellectual honesty and sincerity and purity of understanding. And this affliction, this terrible and frightening illness which was relentlessly pressing him down even into the jaws of the tomb, was not destroying him after all.

-Merton pp 91-92

Merton wrote his autobiography as a young Trappist monk and saw the world and his past through the newly minted lens of his Catholic faith, rather than from the perspective of later in his life as a cleric. I have no idea if, at 17, any of this would have occurred to him, and of course, he had no idea what his father was subjectively experiencing, but his father, a professional artist, was communicating that experience in the only way he knew how. And years later, it’s possible that his son finally understood.

At the time, Merton probably only understood the following, and ironically, decades removed from the event and having lived a completely different life than he, I also understand.

Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture.

-Merton, pg 91

I don’t know if Merton captured the ineffable essence of all human suffering in that paragraph or if, by the grace of God, he managed to actually create in that brief stream of words, a completely accurate description that points to my life as it is today specifically for the sake of my soul, but these words speak to me like no other words that I’ve ever read. In virtually one literary breath, Merton describes my predicament and it’s potential cure. In trying to avoid suffering, I have become the author of my own pain. Every little event is registered as another injury, and my very life, with every beat of my heart, is my greatest agony. Each heartbeat is like another splinter inserted into my eyes, and each breath is constricted by a great hand crushing my lungs.

And the cure is to stop avoiding suffering.

Strange cure, I must admit. After all, who seeks to suffer? Who actually wants their own faith to be tested?

But Peter became a better man after he recovered from denying the Master. Merton believed that, even in terrible suffering, with death waiting for him as close as his shadow, that his father’s soul was becoming better because of his torment. Of course, this is a Catholic’s perspective on the matter, and a 17 year old Merton could not truly assess the condition of his father’s soul, but his father could not avoid suffering and so there he was; drawing “little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos,” and communing with God.

So I went back to school, after seeing Father for a moment on the way through London. I had been back for barely a week when I was summoned, one morning, to the Headmaster’s study, and he gave me a telegram which said that Father was dead.

-Merton, pg 93

And so the great mass of horrible agony and pain is really made up of tiny bits and pieces of frustration and annoyance and sorrow. The missed opportunity to say, “I love you,” the driver that cuts you off on the road, the harsh rebuke from your daughter, the unfriendly chiding of an online critic; these are all filtered through the self and the self-loathing of my existence and my life as I vainly attempt to avoid injury and insult. The harder I try to isolate myself from the “slings and arrows,” the more they strike and stab at me.

Is there some truth after all in letting down my defenses and praying that God stand with me in the face of my own wretched life?

Ironically, it was famed martial arts master Bruce Lee who said, “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” On the one hand, I have no control whatsoever, of the seemingly random events of the world around me. But on the other hand, I have a great deal of control about how or if I choose to try to avoid them and, in encountering such events, how I choose to interpret their impact. Am I in pain? It feels that way. Do I have to be? I don’t know.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, interpreting the letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, said:

In the morning, we make our plea as though unable to tolerate another moment. And as evening comes, we demand again as though morning never passed.

We live on the verge of eternity. May we arrive now.

We live on the verge of eternity, as if life were like dancing on the edge of a razor blade, running fast and hard, terrified that if we fall, we’ll be cut to ribbons.

But what if we…what if I chose one day, to deliberately fall off of the edge of the razor, but rather than falling headlong into the sharpened metal and being destroyed in bloody shredded flesh…

…I flew?

Flight of the Sparrow

Devastating News Today, darn it!

Heidi’s tumor markers not only went up but doubled. So this new chemotherapy failed completely, like the one they tried in December/January. We will hear what option(s) are left sometime tomorrow.

My own outpatient surgery is tomorrow morning at 8am, another unwelcome surprise.

We’re really grateful to all of you for your kindness and support.

My beloved wife has metastatic breast cancer (spread to lungs, bone, liver). I am a prostate cancer survivor and my bladder cancer is in remission. We are both treated at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. But we love God, we love life’s adventures, we love our family & friends. And will do so until God takes us Home. We are followers of Christ.

-Joe Hendricks
Tuesday, April 2nd, 2012

I’ve never met Joe and Heidi Hendricks face to face. I suppose I could, since we live only about a day’s drive away from each other. However, through the “magic” of Facebook, I have shared the last few years of their cancer battle together. The photo I’ve posted is number 56 in their scenes from our cancer battle.

The most startling thing for me about photo 56 is that Joe and Heidi aren’t smiling. No, I don’t expect them to smile after such terrible news, but if you go through their “photo album,” even in the most dire of circumstances, they’re always smiling and joking and pressing on through adversity. Humor is almost the last tool to fail when all other tools have long since burned out in the course of such a tremendous physical and emotional drain. I must admit, mine would have been shot through like swiss cheese in a hail storm long before this. But Joe particularly always makes me laugh.

But not today.

Besides their sense of humor, the thing I admire most about Joe and Heidi is their faith. A lot of Christians say they have faith and trust in God…that is, until something really bad happens. Then it all goes flying out the window and it’s “Why did you let this happen to me, God?” and “How could you be so cruel to me, God?” I’m sure I’d be among that group if I had to face the scenes from Joe and Heidi’s cancer battle first hand.

But no matter how grim it’s been for them, they’ve always grasped tightly onto the hand of God and never let go, just as love has bonded Joe and Heidi together and the never let go of each other.

I’m angry. No, not at God…well, not exactly. I don’t who or what I’m angry at. I think it’s that I feel really helpless and frustrated. Sounds strange, eh? There is horrible tragedy happening all over the world. Every day, someone suffers. Every day, someone dies. Every day, some act of injustice is committed, the helpless are victimized and have no defender, the innocent are made to pay for the crimes of the oppressor. It’s a broken world.

But in the face of all that, I’m angry at the news of Joe and Heidi’s cancer battle today. I know the world isn’t fair, but I’m still angry. It isn’t fair.

It’s like my feelings have mass and can be affected by gravity. It’s like the muscles that hold up my feelings are tired and my sadness is a lead weight, pulling my shoulders down and anchoring me to my seat. I feel as if I’m slowly being pulled to the floor. It’s as if my only light is losing its brightness, and I’m just getting more heavy and silent and it’s getting dark all around me.

The light of laughter is going out in the world.

And where is God?

How many people of faith have asked that question across the long stretch of centuries? How many Christians and Muslims and Jews and whoever else have asked God where He went off to when horrible news, disease, injury, and death stalked us one by one? Is this what ancient man felt like, cowering in some cave in the night, listening to the predators crying out at the moon and declaring to the grey, reflected light that they would find you and consume you?

Is that what it feels like knowing that there is a cancer inside of you and it’s taking over and it won’t be chased away?

I’ve heard the words “God is in control” said countless times in countless church services, but what do the words really mean? God is in control, but people still get sick. God is in control but people still get hurt. We’re alone, and we’re scared, and we need to be able to hang on when our strength, and our stamina, and finally our laughter is dried up like the last drop of water feeding the last wilted flower in the brilliant summer sun baking the vast and endless desert.

I realize that there are forces in the world and forces in our body that we can fight but we can’t always control. At some point, no matter how much you put into the struggle, you (I can only imagine, since I haven’t had to face this) have to let your shoulders relax, let the weight pull you down, look up, put your tiny hand in God’s immense grasp and say, “No matter what happens, please don’t go away.”

I hate crying.

God, don’t go away. Stay with Joe and Heidi, no matter what happens. We all want a miracle, but the greatest miracle is that You even care. If not even one tiny sparrow falls to the earth apart from the will of the Father, then You are mindful of Joe and Heidi, for they are worth much, much more than sparrows.

Stay with them God and, if it is Your will, don’t let them fall. Let them fly.