This post is a part of a series which features an assortment of adroit voices exploring how to think theologically about cancer and those who have it. Read the series introduction or view all posts in the series.
Warning: I’m going to start crassly and swear in this post… so if you don’t like that kind of thing, do something else on the internet.
Jake asked specifically to NOT address his cancer in this post, so I won’t, rather I’ll do what I’ve tried to do with all my own theological work: I’ll try to seek for God by addressing my own existential issues with this demon called cancer.
But to do that I first need to reference Jake one more time, before completely taking the spotlight off him and placing it on my borderline narcissistic self, (which I suspect many of the rest of you share with me, and talking about terminal diseases exposes it in us all). I say this as much as a confession as anything else, so here it is…
When I found out Jake had cancer I had two EQUAL emotions that moved into direct contemplation. First, I thought, Damn! poor Jake, how awful! This really, really sucks for him. I even prayed, Lord, have mercy.
But almost with the same intensity that I thought this, pretty much simultaneously, I found myself also thinking, Better him than me!
I know it sounds harsh; I know it makes me a true a-hole. But, it is cancer! There is little else in the world that I fear as much.
Then, like branches from a tree, the second emotion led to two reactions. Hearing it was Jake and not me, I felt both relief and dread at the same time. I felt relief that again somehow I had avoided the odds, missing out, at least for a few more days, on the arrival of the dark demon named cancer. But that relief was contaminated by another feeling: dread. I knew that if Jake could get it, then this demon was certainly real, and no made-up boogie man.
Life really is the linking of experiences and emotions into some kind of frayed but mystically-whole narrative. Our lives are stories that propel us from one plotline to another, building on themselves as they go.
The thing I hate about cancer, truly the thing that takes my breath away in fear, is how it appears, how it seems to bite like a shark, when you least expect it. Your life is going along just fine, as you bob in the turquoise water of your beach vacation, right there in the middle of your life, bang! you’re told it is in peril, the turquoise water turns red as the dead-eyed beast grabs your leg, as cancer takes its hold, thanks to the sterile emotion-less diagnosis of an overworked doctor.
It is the interruption, like teeth penetrating skin sinking to bone, it is the taking of your life’s unfolding and the beating it with a baseball bat that seems so terrible. Even in films, when it happen, when cancer is diagnosed, when it strikes, I’m sent existential. I’m man enough to admit it, I guess, even when I watched Stepmom, when Susan Sarandon’s character got cancer, I cried like a four year old with a bloody skinned knee. I cried because of the interruption, the way that cancer sought to steal her time with her children, to take from them the love of their mother. Cancer is an interruption that divides and separates. That’s why it is a demon; it is the work of demons to divide and separate, to interrupt so that they can steal.
One of my earliest memories was the dividing and separating that cancer, the demon, does. My first friend Benjamin, when we were both four years old, was struck with cancer, and dead months later. At four I watched it interrupt everything, stopping, like a car hitting a cement wall, the unfolding life of a child. I watched the shattering interruption as his parents dealt with the division and separation. And it all started so unassumingly, just with the spotting of a lump under the armpit of a child at bath; and then, then a test, then another, then the words of a doctor telling you that your unfolding life is fucked. And then months later the same doctor says that the interruption will win, that a little boy must be taken by the demon and his body put in that so unnaturally small casket and sent to nothingness.
I hate and fear cancer because of the interruption it brings, because it comes right out of the clear blue sky, blinding you to your future, taking you from love, from otherness, from the embrace we need to be human. Taking you from your very body, stripping you of hair and weight as it cages you in an insatiable concentration camp of violent interruption.
But not only cancer, not only do demons interrupt. So too does the act of God. So too comes God out of the clear blue sky to change all things. Saul’s life is unfolding, he is firmly on the trajectory that his life has led him to, a Jew of Jews, circumcised on the eighth day as a member of the tribe of Benjamin. But then, he is struck, he is encountered and all is interrupted.
But this interruption does not act in the shadows with no name, as the demon cancer does, not as the statement of disease, not to divide and separate. Rather, this act of God’s interruption comes in the encounter of personhood. It is I, Jesus, whom you persecute. He is the one, the person, to interrupt. And in this person, in the personal interruption, Saul is transformed (an interruption that moves from death to life). Saul becomes Paul; for Paul is not divided or separated but interrupted to be given to others. Paul is interrupted to be given union, to be found “in Christ.”
The hope of the gospel, the hope for all those with cancer like Jake, or scared to death of it, like me, is that this God of Jesus Christ is a God that will stand in the breach. This God is given to us, to be person for us, so that He might overcome all division and separation, so that all demons may be cast out, and all that separated may be overcome in love, mercy, and wholeness. This God gives us Godself, so that the dying of our lives might be interrupted by the new life of a coming eschaton, of a new reality, made so in resurrection.
It is only a vision of a crucified God, a resurrected God that calls us to His person. It is I, Jesus! gives me hope that even if the demon comes, even if it is tomorrow, interrupting everything in my life, keeping me from embracing my children, from years with my wife, taking my life, that I will still live. For though the demon may kill me, my life is hidden in the love of the Father to the Son. A love that knows, that embraces, and indwells death, so that it has no more power to finally and completely separate and divided.
So I say to you cancer, “Fuck off, for my life is in Jesus, and though I am too weak and too scared to face you, my God has faced you down, being broken for me, and in so doing overcoming you by bearing you, so that your work of breaking has no power over me. I trust this as an act of faith… but still, just as much as an act of faith, I admit it, I’m still fucking scared.”
Andrew Root, PhD (Princeton Theological Seminary) is in Olson Baalson chair as Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He is the author of The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry (with Kenda Creasy Dean, IVP, 2011), The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being (Baker Academic, 2010), Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation (IVP, 2007) and Relationships Unfiltered (Zondervan/YS, 2009).