So last week one of my classmates from seminary died from colon cancer at thirty-seven years young. It seems like such news is still far too common no matter how many Relays for Life, or research fundraisers totaling in the millions of dollars, our full-blown attack on a single disease feels as if there has been zero progress in stopping the deadly arsenal of horrible cancer. But obviously that isn't entirely true. There are plenty of survivors, including in this very congregation: success stories that give all the weary patients who endure the grueling chemotherapy and radiation much-needed hope.
However, this one hit far too close to home for me: far too close to my own age bracket, far too close to this calling of ordained ministry, far too close to someone I had the utmost respect for. Now I would be lying if I told you I knew Elaina well after four years in seminary. But with a class close to thirty in size, in the classroom you do get to know each other's personalities, their stances on certain issues, and just how they carry themselves in general. It goes without saying that some pastors are in this to prove something, to prove that they can do this. Some are in it for their own personal faith journey. And yes, some have egos that can fill all the churches of an entire denomination. But with some you can just tell they have an authentic compassion, a drive for ministering to complete strangers, an empowering love that can lift people from the deepest trenches of darkness. Elaina was one of those pastors.
Just over five years ago I thought I experienced a massive cultural shock after spending most of my life in rural northwestern Ohio before spending a year of internship for seminary in the gargantuan monstrosity of Dallas, Texas. Well, Elaina had me beat. She was over a thousand miles south of me in Mexico City: a place that is now on many top ten lists as one of the most dangerous large cities in the world, with the drugs, the gangs, the kidnappings, and the homicide rate that would put Chicago to shame. Nevertheless, Elaina was there doing ministry for the sake of people she never met, for the sake of Jesus Christ that shaped her life through the end.
I want to share something she wrote last year in the midst of her chemotherapy treatments, not to mention all the different responses she was getting as she took on this painful journey:
Let's start with doctors. Let's face it, they're an odd breed. They see in black and white. That's something I understand intellectually, but to hear my surgeon say the following is something altogether different: "So, I presented your case to the tumor board this past week, and they agree...you're a sad, sad case."
Or there was the time when my oncologist asked my mother (while standing in front of me, mind you), "You have other children, right? Yes....good, that is good."
Or how about when others learn about my cancer and look at me inelegantly, saying, "Oh, I'm sorry." I've found that this is the toughest one yet. Maybe because I hear it a lot; or maybe because I do believe that there is sincerity behind this statement. After all, I do think people are sorry, which
is difficult enough to deal with. But more often I think they just don't know what else to say. They're uncomfortable. And all of this translates into some kind of half apology/half onslaught of additional awkward-yet-cheerily-posed questions:
"Hope they caught it early!" (Well, they didn't.)
"But you're gonna be fine, right?" (Well, it's Stage IV, incurable cancer.)
Because in the end when people tell me they're sorry, I usually respond by saying "there's nothing to be sorry about. It's just the way life is. It's terrible, but true."
Yep, I have a list of ridiculous things that people have said to me...and they weigh on my heart. It's terrible, but true. It's hard to hear the pessimism of doctors over and over again. It's hard to hear the statistics. It's hard to keep my life in focus.
But, then again, I have also had friends and family, parishioners and strangers, loved ones and co-workers who have eased this weight with other words...and sometimes it's even the words that aren't spoken that ease the weight the most.
I have a mother who comes and sits with me through every single round of chemo. We sit there playing cards hour after hour...Gin Rummy is our game. She also beats me at every single game! She has no pity. (And I have cancer, for heaven's sake; you'd think she could throw a game here or there!)
I have two amazing sisters: one who calls me from Texas every single day. Just to see how I am, just to show her support, just to make me feel like she doesn't live quite so far away. And a sister who randomly cooks me soups she makes up the recipes for. One who listens to me wallow, but who also doesn't let me wallow too
I have a dad who tells me how proud he is of me.
I have a friend who tells me "who is man to call something incurable?" I like that.
I have parishioners who tell me that I am a wonderful witness. I don't really know how to take that, but nonetheless.
I have a best friend who refuses to let cancer become the center of our relationship. It's not. We are.
I've had random people I've never met before walk up to me on the streets of Massillon, Ohio, ask if I'm the pastor at Faith...and when I respond that I am, they tell me that they've been praying for me.
These are just a few of the folks who have chosen to bear some of this weight with me: to walk with me.
And yet there is another whose words not only help to bear the weight of the words in this world, but who actually takes on the entirety of the weight. Sometimes I forget in the massive onslaught of words I hear from the doctors-and in the statistics-but God is speaking too. Then again, sometimes, maybe I just forget to listen.
For I have a God who is telling me profound things. I have a God who tells me that I am not alone. And I have a God who promises to suffer with me in this world.
God has called me to service in this world and shown me again and again that it is not the cure for cancer that I am called to seek. I seek God.
It is a needed reality check from Pastor Elaina that we are called to seek God in this world. Out of the baptismal waters the waves take us into people's lives who are broken, some of which are in downright terrible circumstances. And as they seek God themselves, the Holy Spirit works through us: through humble cries, through card games, through simple meals, through the living reminder that no disease, no infirmity, no shortcoming, nothing else on this planet can define a person's worth besides the love of God through Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Today we remember the baptism that defines us as sisters and brothers in Christ, and drives us in the ministry for the sake of the whole world: as council members, as pastors, as teachers, as farmers, as nurses, as engineers and everything in between. God pushes out into the currents of this life to be the living reminder that not even cancer, no matter how painful, how awful, it cannot, it will not win over any child of God. For God has won the victory for life everlasting, for Elaina, for cancer patients all over the world, for all of us. Death has been swallowed up in the victory of our Lord, Jesus Christ, forevermore. And for that ultimate triumphant hope, we give thanks to God indeed. Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Nan Dehnke, Pastor
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon