People speak of the dying experiencing their lives flashing before them. I suppose that’s something, albeit slower, of what it’s like with cancer- the ‘hell of prolonged farewell‘ that it can be.
And it’s funny the memories that cancer calls to mind, such as the ones I have of a man named Wayne.
One summer Sunday morning, about 6 1/2 years ago, I sat down in a plastic lawn chair in the courtyard of the bungalows where a service team from my church were staying in Guatemala. I had a bowl of cereal in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
It was just the beginning of our week. Most of the service team had already eaten and had left to explore the lake at the edge of town and to snap pictures of the volcanoes that surrounded it.
For a moment or two, I ate alone.
Until another plastic lawn chair scraped across the concrete and a tall, lanky, balding man sat down next to me. He was wearing navy cargo pants and a bright yellow t-shirt that said ‘Fredricksburg UMC’ on the chest.
I recognized him immediately, but I could tell by the look on his face that the recognition wasn’t mutual.
He held his hand out and said matter-of-factly: ‘Wayne.’
‘Jason,’ I replied and shook his hand.
There were several other mission teams there that week and Wayne asked me which church I was a part of.
‘Is your pastor here with you this week?’ he asked.
‘Yep,’ I said nonchalantly and crunched some cereal.
After a pregnant pause or three, I said ‘Actually, I’m the pastor.’
He looked up from his cereal bowl and paused for a moment to see if I was being serious.
‘I wouldn’t think a pastor could get away with a shirt like that,’ Wayne observed.
He was referring to the black, triathalon t-shirt my wife gave me. It has pictures of a runner, a swimmer and a biker on it and below the images is the caption: ‘Threesome anyone?’
‘Shit, they’d be surprised if I didn’t wear shirts like this.’
‘So I guess they wouldn’t be shocked by your language then either?’
‘Not for a while now,’ I said, ‘though my bishop’s a different story.’
‘And does your congregation know you wear an earring when you go on mission trips?’ he asked me.
‘I wear it all the time,’ I said.
‘Really?’ he replied and again looked up from his cereal bowl to see if I was being serious.
‘You’d be surprised. It’s my sandals that irritate my congregation the most. I wear them all the time.’
He smiled and, with a napkin, dabbed at the milk in the corners of his mouth.
‘Are you really a pastor?’ he asked one last time.
I could tell he still didn’t recognize me so I said: ‘I was here last summer when you were here.’
He pointed a long, thin finger at me and snapped- like he’d just experienced an ‘Aha’ moment. And then he rubbed his chin as though he were trying to place me. But really I think he was just remembering the previous summer.
That past July–
Wayne’s church and the service team from mine- we’d met in a tiny Guatemalan village called Alaska, so-called because the mountain altitude makes the community cloudy and cold. Both of our churches had gone there that day to participate in a reforestation project and to celebrate the construction of a new school.
Wayne had cancer that summer.
I remember hearing how he’d collapsed and spit up blood during the week while building a wood stove for a Mayan family. I remember overhearing him say in a defeated voice that he’d been coming to Guatemala for fifteen years to build stoves and how he expected that summer to be his last.
A Mayan priest had been invited to the village that day to perform a ritual blessing for the new school, but because of Wayne the priest instead performed an indigenous healing ceremony.
Wayne’s church and ours sat in a circle with a fire in the middle. Wayne sat with his shoulders slumped over. Wayne’s wife sat next to him and with a blue bandana, stoically wiped the tears from behind her sunglasses. The priest prayed a long, elaborate prayer with ‘Wayne’ being the only word distinguishable beneath the hard-sounding, Klingon-like Mayan dialect.
After the prayer, the priest dipped a bouquet of flowers in to the smoke and brushed Wayne’s body with it, up and down, front and back. He anointed Wayne’s neck and temples with oil. And then the priest placed his hands on Wayne’s chest and back and whispered another long prayer into his ear.
When the priest finished, the emotion swelling in the group was such the entire circle sang the doxology to Wayne. Sang it as a blessing. And, one-by-one, we hugged and promised to pray for him.
‘Have faith,’ I remember telling him, approximately 7 1/2 years before I was diagnosed with cancer myself.
A year later, that summer Sunday morning, sitting there at breakfast, Wayne was about the last person I expected to see.
‘How are you?’ I asked him.
No matter what I’d told him before no part of me expected him to live. So I was surprised when he said: ‘I’m fine. The cancer’s gone. I’m cured.’
It’s hard to say anything to that without it sounding cliche or contrived so for a while I just smiled awkwardly at him, the same way I do when the salesgirl at Victoria’s Secret catches my eyes lingering over the posters on the wall a bit too long.
But then I asked him: ‘Has it strengthened your faith?’ A pastorly type question I wagered.
Wayne put his elbows on the table and he looked at me like he had a secret and he said:
‘Well, that all depends on how you define faith.’
I pushed my cereal bowl to the center of the table, and I gestured to Wayne in a tell me more sort of way. He rested his chin on his hand and he said, confidingly:
‘I used to think faith was just a personal thing. You know- just between me and my God.’
Then he smiled as though he were embarrassed by what he’d said.
‘When you think your life’s just about over,’ Wayne whispered, ‘you realize: faith is about more than just you and God. Its bigger than you. It’s not just in here or in here.’
And he pointed to his head and his heart.
‘It’s here,’ he said and he circled his fingers all around.
‘It’s about changing the world,’ he said in a case-closed tone of voice.
‘I guess I never thought about it like that before,’ I said.
And he squinted his eyes at me and asked: ‘You’re not just yanking my chain? You’re really a pastor?’
Wayne came to mind a few months after that morning while I was writing a sermon on Hebrews 11.1-16, a passage in which the author, whom scholars refer to as ‘the Preacher,’ preaches:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for.’
As with any sermon, if you read between the lines you can learn what’s going on in the preacher’s congregation. And when it comes to this preacher’s congregation, it’s obvious. They’re tired.
They’re tired of the endless challenges of serving their neighbor. They’re tired of the monotony of worship. They’re tired of the routine of church life.
They’ve heard every bible story and learned every prayer and the Good News- it’s not so new anymore.
This preacher’s congregation-
they’ve had faith for so long they’ve forgotten what faith is.
So the preacher of Hebrews attempts to reignite them, to call them back. And the preacher pulls out all the stops to do so.
The preacher preaches about how Jesus is superior to every angel in heaven. The preacher preaches about how Jesus is the only one who is blameless when it comes to sin, the only one who can approach God Almighty and plead our case.
The preacher preaches about how Christ is our great high priest, the One who mediates a covenant of forgiveness, a covenant that is new and perfect and forever, a covenant sealed with the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice that is final and once-for-all because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
It’s a kitchen sink, swing for the fences, altar call kind of sermon.
Just when the congregation starts to nod their heads and murmur ‘Amen,’ just before the preacher works his way to the crescendo- he stops. And he lets all the momentum leak out of his sermon.
The preacher stops. He looks out at his congregation. And with all deliberate plainness he says:
‘Before I preach another word, I want to make sure we all know what faith is.’
And probably some there in the congregation yawned, thinking they don’t need to be reminded of what faith is. And I bet there were others there in the pews that morning who looked at their watches and wondered why the preacher was wasting time on this.
After all, it’s obvious what faith is. Right?
Faith is believing in what you can’t see. It’s being confident of what you can’t prove. It’s like trust. It’s like obedience. It’s personal. It’s a relationship. It’s in here, as Wayne told me he’d once thought.
But for this preacher, those usual definitions they don’t quite measure up:
‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for…’
The preacher preaches.
Except- that’s not quite it, I made a point to point out in my own preaching that day. What we hear in the passage and what the preacher’s congregation first heard aren’t the same thing. Something’s lost in the translation from Greek to English:
‘Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for…’
That’s what the preacher preaches. The trouble is biblical translators think that word carries too much philosophical baggage to give it to you straight up. So they translate it as ‘assurance.’
It’s the same word we recite in the creeds when we affirm how Jesus the Son and God the Father- even though they’re different and distinct- somehow, mysteriously, share in the very same life, the very same work, the very same mission. Faith is like that- that’s what the preacher’s getting at.
Hypostasis. It means literally ‘very being.’
In other words, ‘faith is the very being- one and the same- of what we hope for.’
Or a better way of putting it- ‘faith is the reality of what we hope for.’ An even clearer way of putting it would be- Faith brings into the here and now what God has promised for tomorrow.
To make the preacher’s point really plain- Faith makes our future hope real in the now.
Our hope for things on earth to be as they are in heaven, our hope for the empty to be filled and the lowly lifted up, our hope for mourning and crying and pain to be no more.
Faith makes our hope real.
So of course it’s can’t just be in here or in here. It’s about changing the world, as Wayne told me. And I’ve been preaching that kind of faith 52 Sundays a year ever since.
Except, I wonder now if maybe that’s not quite it either.
The poet Kazim Ali advises that when you write or speak about something for a living you need to walk away from it for a time or you cease to know anything about it.
I think there’s wisdom in that advice. It’s been nearly 6 months since I ‘walked away’ from preaching and now I find myself recalling Wayne, whose point I once reiterated in sermon after sermon, and wanting to push back a bit.
Maybe it’s because Wayne was ‘cured’ when I spoke with him that morning over breakfast and, even if the months of treatment in front of me still go well, I never will be.
Maybe it’s because the teenage boy in the room next to me today, who has leukemia and the alienesque translucent skin to prove it, spit up blood all over the bathroom.
Which made me think of Wayne spitting up blood.
Which made me think of that boy in the room next to me.
Or maybe it’s that I have cancer now and, dammit, I’m entitled to my own take on things.
It’s probably all three, why I want to resist Wayne’s now, push back on his insistence that faith is about changing the world.
Frankly, there’s just too much changing that needs to be done.
While she flushed the lines of chest catheter today, I asked my nurse if she enjoyed her job. I was just making chit-chat, but I’m sure on some level we were both thinking of the boy in the next room.
‘I went into nursing to help people,’ she said, ‘You know, to make a difference, change the world.’ And she raised her eyebrows like you do at an old high school photo of yourself you barely rescue (or want to).
‘I enjoy it, yeah, but after so many patients, especially ones with what turns out to be a terminal illness (and she glanced at me and blushed), it’s easy to think you’re not really changing anything. There’s always the next one, so much need.’
‘Compassion fatigue, I guess’ she said and smiled.
Strangely, her words reminded me not of Wayne, not at first. but of the ending to a book we’ve all read, Charlotte’s Web. Like I said, cancer conjures curious memories. We’ve all read the book but, I think, forgotten the melancholy ending:
“Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash.
Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all.”
Anyone in the often grim trade of ministry or anyone in oncology can tell you: deaths like Charlotte’s, lonely deaths where the world goes on at best oblivious and at worst indifferent, they happen all the time.
And that’s just 1 statistic with which you can scratch the surface. You can throw in war, poverty, sex-trafficing- what Paul calls the ‘Principalities and Powers’ against which we must contend.
Of course, that’s the rub. Elsewhere Paul also claims those selfsame Principalities and Powers have been defeated. On the cross.
What my nurse hit upon by expressing her feelings of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s suffering and need is what theologians mean by describing the ‘already/not yet’ character of Christ’s saving work.
Christ’s victory over the powers of this dark world has been achieved already; his work upon the cross is perfect, complete and once-for-all.
But the effects of his victory, Christ’s reign and his Kingdom, the evacuation of suffering and alienation, the elimination of Sin and Death, still are not yet realized upon the world. Innocents die of collateral damage. Kids die of cancer. The poor suffer our affluence. Prisoners suffer our indifference. Minorities suffer our blind and casual callousness.
In a nutshell, already/not yet translates to:
The world is not the way it’s supposed to be if- especially freaking if- A) God exists and B) God is sovereign and C) God as the Incarnate Christ already defeated the Principalities and Powers.
Believe me, take the cancer ward as just one possible exhibit A. It can get hard to believe in the already when you’re surrounded by, thrust into, so much of the not yet. So much so you start to worry- any sane or moral person would, I think- that your faith in the ‘already’ isn’t really a form of cognitive dissonance. Not pie in the sky as much as willful shutting of the eyes to all the shit below the skies.
Now, with cancer myself, I find myself begging to differ with Wayne:
Christian faith is not about rolling up our sleeves and changing the world, chipping away at the ‘not yet’ one compassionate act at a time.
It can’t be because ever since the alleged ‘already’ at the first Easter about 2 thousand years of ‘not yet’ have accrued and, much like the sin that begat the cross in the first place, that’s a debt we cannot possibly pay.
To insist that faith in the Risen Jesus is about changing the world not only suggests that we can ourselves what Jesus still has not done himself (for whatever reasons), it surely also inflicts the kind of fatigued sense of futility my nurse expressed to me, as though Christians are called not to baptize but to burnout.
So if Christian faith isn’t about changing the world, then what’s the why behind our compassionate actions?
What’s the why behind bothering to build wood-stoves in Guatemala? Behind serving the poor? Behind caring for the sick and the suffering?
People often ask me these days if cancer has gotten me to rethink any of my theology.
Here it is:
Christian faith- our compassionate acts of faithful service- are not about changing the world.
They’re about protesting it.
Protesting the ‘not yet’ way of
Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I first cut my teeth, writes that whenever we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘for God’s name to be hallowed and God’s Kingdom to come we cannot come to terms and be satisfied with the status quo.’
We are, Barth says, by our prayerful action to ‘revolt and fight against the disorder which inwardly and outwardly controls and penetrates and disrupts all human relations and interconnections.’
Or, as it’s put more concisely in a quote attributed to Barth: ‘To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising agains the disorder of the world.’
So we pray, we serve, we roll up our sleeves and care in order to protest- to point out- that the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, far far from it (screams the boy’s blood in the bathroom next to me), and although we cannot change the world ourselves we pursue these modest acts of faith as a witness, a summons, to the only One who can.
Of course, if Christian faith is more about protesting the world than changing it, then it should become obvious that our biggest protest is
toagainst God, who still has not yet made good on the already of his Easter promise.