cancer and theology

Cancer & Theology on all devices
When I organized the Cancer & Theology guest blog series in the spring of 2012, I had a very clear idea of what I hoped to get out of it. In the original introductory post, I wrote that I wanted to be “stretched in new and imaginative ways in how to think theologically about cancer (and, by extension, other illnesses) and those who have it.” I was much less confident, however, about whether the essays would be helpful for others.

As the series progressed, responses poured in both online and in-person, and it became undeniably clear that Cancer & Theology met a felt need. The responses were overwhelmingly positive: Readers not only expressed gratitude for the opportunity to reflect theologically on illness and death but also deep respect for the contributors’ honesty and faith. Even today, the essays continue to generate comments, emails, etc. from thankful readers.

In order to expand the reach of these marvelous essays, I’m thrilled to announce that the Cancer & Theology collection is now available as an e-book.

Cancer & Theology iPad Kindle photo

Edited, designed, and published by Elbow Co.—an indie church resourcing venture operated by myself and Erik Ullestadthe e-book has several exclusives that distinguish it from the online series.1 In addition to the original thirteen essays, it features:

Cancer & Theology is just $5.99 and is available today exclusively as an Amazon Kindle e-book.2 The design, which features a striking cover and gorgeous typography,3 renders beautifully on Kindle readers as well as iPhones, iPads, Mac and PC computers, and many other devices equipped with a free Kindle app.4 Additionally, 20% of all proceeds from sales of the e-book will be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Many thanks to the sixteen authors who contributed to this important collection. When you read Cancer & Theology‘s diverse assortment of essays, I believe you’ll be deeply appreciative of their depth, utility, and candor. So go ahead and buy a copy for yourself or for a friend as a gift (and when you’re finished, consider leaving a review on the Amazon page).

Cancer & Theology [Kindle Edition]
Edited by Jake Bouma & Erik Ullestad
$5.99 Kindle Purchase
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  1. All of the essays from the original series will remain available for free on my blog in perpetuity. []
  2. It will eventually be available for Apple’s iBooks (for sure) and Barnes & Noble’s nook (hopefully), but is exclusive to Kindle for the time being. A print version is in the works as well. []
  3. For the curious, the main body text is set in Iowan Old Style, and the essay headings, blockquotes, etc. are set in Avenir Next. These fonts are actually embedded in the e-book file itself—taking advantage of them requires the selection of “Publisher Font” in Kindle’s “View Options” preferences. []
  4. After countless hours of coding and testing for the various Kindle devices and apps, I have a new and abiding respect for well-designed e-books. []

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Cancer & Theology guest blog series

This post is a part of a series featuring an assortment of voices exploring how to think theologically about cancer and those who have it. Read the series introduction or view all posts in the series. UPDATE: The beautifully designed Cancer & Theology e-book includes the original essays as well as three new essays and a new introduction.

There are two books that are helpful which directly address the question, “Where is God in the face of the suffering and death from cancer?” David Watson’s Fear No Evil and M.R. Thompson’s Cancer and the God of Love. The theses of both these books is that God has already gone before us, experiencing suffering, agony and ultimately death so because of this we need fear no evil. The freeing part of the Christian message is we need not deny sickness and the ultimate questions of why suffering but rather the knowledge that God walks with us and when we can no longer walk God carries us. As C.S. Lewis wrote, the ultimate test of our Christian faith in the face of loss, illness, and death of loved ones is whether we believe God is a Cosmic Sadist or a loving parent. In answering this question, we are reminded that we cannot celebrate the Easter of resurrection and new life until we have passed through the Good Friday of pain and suffering.

Ultimately the theodicy question of why a good God permits suffering and is still all-powerful and -loving is veiled in mystery. Any rush to rational explanations of this paradox reduces God’s mystery to our limited knowledge and explanations which ultimately must fail.

For Christians our theology must be translated into action, deeds, and a life that makes a difference in Christ’s name. It is especially when someone is facing a slow and certain death that deeds of kindness can say more than all the theological truths. Instead of the words, “Can I help?” the more concrete words, “What do you need?” help to empower the ill person to name what would be helpful to them, from bringing food to their family, doing chores around the house, reading poetry, taking their child to school or the doctor. One of the most difficult aspects of being chronically or terminally ill is the loss of control. Where in many cases there is little you can do to wrest the progression of the disease, others can help empower you to still participate in decisions and their implementation about your treatment and life.

For people with terminal cancer the question may often be, “How should I live while I am dying?” One wise friend, whose husband died of cancer, told me her words to her husband were, “Your disease does not change who you are, and you are still the wonderful person you have always been.” On the other hand, Eric Cassell, oncologist at Cornell, wrote that illness is not like a knapsack fastened on to you, but rather it changes everything about you and your world. While it is true that the world of the dying person shrinks and the peripheral matters of life recede, still the essence which makes us who we are is always there. In other words, nothing can alter that we are a child of God, made in God’s image.

These truths should form the heart of the Christian message of hope that we share in the face of the terrible ravages of disease.

Our greatest call, however, is to stand with and by people in their illness. Sometimes in silence, sometimes with comforting words, thereby incarnating the love of Christ for them in all circumstances.

Cancer & Theology

The entire Cancer & Theology series is now available as a beautifully designed e-book, featuring a new introduction and three new, e-book-only essays from Adam J. Copeland, Joshua Longbrake, and Greg Syler. It is available exclusively for Amazon Kindle devices and apps (including most smartphones, tablets, and computers) for just $5.99.*

Buy Cancer & Theology [Kindle Edition] | $5.99
(Clicking this button will direct you to Amazon’s website. Your credit card will not be charged.)
*20% of all proceeds from the sale of the e-book will be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Abigail Rian EvansDr. Abigail Rian Evans has over thirty years of experience in the development of innovative approaches to health and wellness. Currently she is a senior scholar in the Center for Clinical Bioethics and an adjunct Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center. Evans is the Charlotte Newcombe Professor of Practical Theology emerita at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she was also Director of the Intern and Clinical Pastoral Education programs. Earlier, Abigail was the Founder and Director of Health Ministries for the National Capital Presbytery and one of the early leaders of the Faith Community Nurses and Health Ministries Association. Her books include Redeeming Marketplace Medicine, The Healing Church, Healing Liturgies for the Seasons of Life, and Is God Still at the Bedside: Medical, Ethical and Pastoral Issues in Death and Dying.

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Cancer & Theology guest blog series

This post is a part of a series featuring an assortment of voices exploring how to think theologically about cancer and those who have it. Read the series introduction or view all posts in the series. UPDATE: The beautifully designed Cancer & Theology e-book includes the original essays as well as three new essays and a new introduction.

There is nothing more disruptive, more apocalyptic, in the life of a modern American person than a health scare. It is peculiarly disruptive in America because we Americans seem to believe we have been inoculated against the possibility of disease and death. Until… that is… we get faced with a brutal life-threatening health scare.

And yet when a difficult illness strikes a whole set of activities are set into motion. We have these visits with doctors, we are given options, our lives are set into the motions and the rhythms of the medical industry. We are made aware of how small we are, and how large the medical machine is. And we keep pushing along doing what people are supposed to do when they get cancer or heart disease. It feels much like we’ve been technologized in the midst of this crucial moment in our lives. Is this me they want to do this stuff to?

But I have personally learned that perhaps the best place in American life for God to get through to me and actually open up a space to be heard are these times I am calling “the health scare.” For it is here where we can come to grips with the illusion that we are in control of our lives. We seek God. In the midst of the panic, the sleepless nights, somehow when we lie exhausted and calm down, we can somehow find Him. Just find Him.

But I think doing this is impossible. Impossible, that is, all by oneself.

I have discovered that getting sick is the worst time to isolate yourself because I cannot escape my fear, I cannot make the walk from fear to trust by going into a closet. I need someone to proclaim (and witness) to the gospel, that “Jesus is Lord,” that he is taking the world somewhere, and that I am an intricate peculiar particular part in all that.

This is the profound place of trust that a health crisis can lead me to if I will somehow go there. But I’ve found myself, and have seen other people, managing ourselves out of this moment. We seek to control everything and put up a front. We research endlessly on the internet every little detail of our disease and our treatments. We spend hours trying to deal with this all in our own human strength. We’re going to “fight this thing!” we say. It’s here I can get isolated and go into a spiral. We need people. We need the body of Christ witnessing to the reality of “Jesus is Lord” amidst the machinations of the American medical industry.

Walking through a health crisis alone is, in my opinion, a denial of the resurrection. It is within the “body of Christ” that fellow believers can proclaim the gospel, lay on hands and pray, all to make present the rule and authority of the Reign of Christ over our lives.

And so, crazy as this may seem, we need to nurture these times when we are presented with a “heath scare.” Take the time afforded to slow everything down, seek God, be with proclaimers of the gospel, let the Holy Spirit be present, submit to the anointing with oil as an unction signifying my body is the Lord’s to be sovereign over. Seek that “way” that guides us into trust from fear by the proclamation of the gospel. This is a process. This is a journey. But this, I believe, is the life-changing Kingdom.

There is a place of peace, discovery and God’s power to be found in the valley of the shadow of death. There is a place here to go deeply into the reality of what God is doing in Jesus Christ and His resurrection that is admittedly hidden to most… until, that is, we get sick.

I pray God’s lordship, God’s healing, God’s blessings over all who walking through an illness. May God by His Spirit in Christ sustain Jake, his family, and others for the work to which God has called them that lies ahead.

Cancer & Theology

The entire Cancer & Theology series is now available as a beautifully designed e-book, featuring a new introduction and three new, e-book-only essays from Adam J. Copeland, Joshua Longbrake, and Greg Syler. It is available exclusively for Amazon Kindle devices and apps (including most smartphones, tablets, and computers) for just $5.99.*

Buy Cancer & Theology [Kindle Edition] | $5.99
(Clicking this button will direct you to Amazon’s website. Your credit card will not be charged.)
*20% of all proceeds from the sale of the e-book will be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

David FitchDavid Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary. He blogs at Reclaiming the Mission and has written several books, including The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies.

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Cancer & Theology guest blog series

This post is a part of a series featuring an assortment of voices exploring how to think theologically about cancer and those who have it. Read the series introduction or view all posts in the series. UPDATE: The beautifully designed Cancer & Theology e-book includes the original essays as well as three new essays and a new introduction.

“The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all.” — Karl Barth1

I have had a number of great theological conversations with my friend Jake over the years. Some have been intentional, like laboring through Ched Meyers together on Thursdays. Some have been unintentional; they’ve sprung out of other conversations, like the time we were laughing and playing guitar on the farmhouse porch and in the blink of an eye we were off, walking, gesturing wildly and speaking excitedly to one another across clover and cornfields. However a really good theological conversation has begun, when Jake and I really got into the heart of an issue, I would become, invariably, giddy. My heart would race, I would smile, I’d feel light as air, and I would laugh.

I have loved having theological discussions with Jake. We have not often seen eye to eye, but I have loved every minute of conversation. It has been a joy to converse with a brother about the One who created us and the One that sustains us. The One who has claimed us as His own. The One whom we can question, together, in the night like Nicodemus. The One who holds us when we don’t have any answers. The One whom we both love, for He first loved us.

It has always been a joy to speak of Him with Jake.

And then Cancer.

When tragedy or pain or suffering comes upon us, we are tempted to believe that that a word can somehow change the conversation. Cancer, infertility, unemployment, and death have been a few of the words that have entered into our theological conversations over the last few years, for these are the tragedies and pain and suffering that have entered our shared lives.

It is easy, in the midst of tragedy, to allow for that tragedy to rule a conversation. We ask ourselves or each other, “If cancer; then what of God?” It is a natural thing, I think, for the darkness of tragedy is so overwhelming. It becomes hard, or impossible, to see anything but darkness. We become dislocated and disoriented.2 But if we grope around theologically from in this darkness, we will always wander down meaningless trails. And at the end of it, we are left with a shrug, a sigh, and maybe, just maybe, a “God is down here somewhere… I think…”

As such, the temptation that tragedy or pain or suffering pushes upon us is to do poor theology (is that a theological category, Jake?). To allow cancer to take the lead in the conversation will always leave us bankrupt, leave us impoverished, leave us starving. For it cannot nourish, it can only suck us dry. Cancer does not strengthen us, it depletes us, it robs us of sleep, it makes us sweat. And while I haven’t experienced cancer for myself, this is my understanding of the disease as I’ve watched loved ones struggle against it.

And struggle, I believe, is an appropriate word;3 for otherwise we would not apply ourselves to seeking out relief from suffering or healing from disease. We can speak in euphemistic terms, there’s often good reason to. But struggle is necessitated by cancer. And we, Christians, of all people it seems, ought not to be fatalistic on this point. For while disease and dying surely seem like the most natural things in the world (it seems to come upon pretty much everyone I know!), the narrative of our Scriptures assure us that quite the opposite is true.

Disease and dying, rather, are uninvited guests to the party. Suffering and pain, these are symptoms of something gone wrong. Cancer, infertility, unemployment, death; these are words of untruth. But the Word of truth has spoken. And the new words He has spoken are healing, redemption, salvation, and life!

Rather than allowing symptoms of our brokenness to begin a conversation, Christian theology done well takes as its first subject the Triune God as revealed in our Holy Scriptures and asks, “If this God who heals, who redeems, who saves, who lives; then what of cancer?”

And what Scripture reveals to us is a God who is wholly and truly good. This is the One who speaks over us healing, redemption, salvation, and life. And this God becomes present to us in Jesus Christ, so that we might become present to Him. He lifts us from dust of disease and the ash of tragedy.4 That’s the Good News! To ponder this God is a joyous thing for He is Joy.

The word “cancer” has been spoken in our midst. It has entered into our conversations. It has pricked our ears and stirred us. It has threatened destruction, it has set its yellowed eyes on my friend. It has horrified us. We have wept. Yet, I tell you the truth, joy has remained in our conversations. Since Jake’s diagnosis we have continued to have theological conversations that have made my heart flutter, made me feel light as air. We have spoken of God and we have laughed.

But for Jake and I to do theology well in the presence of cancer, it is proper that we constantly remind each other of our Subject — the God who redeems and lifts us up. We must stand firm against the temptation to submit to an impoverished conversation that begins, “If cancer, then what of God?” and be resolved to allow our conversation to begin, “If this God, then what of cancer?”

Now some care must be given to speak of healing, redemption, salvation and life with someone upon whom tragedy has come to rest. It would be a thoughtless and careless thing to say, “Well, Christ has brought redemption, why are you wallowing in your cancer?!” But this God whose modus operandi is redemption in the macro sense also operates in the same way in the micro sense. He doesn’t act one way in the big picture and another way when it comes down to your life or my life.

James reminds us of this when he says, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”5 And this admonishment comes in the context of tragedy in James’ epistle. It follows on the tails of his seemingly unreasonable urging for us to “Count it all joy… when you meet trials of various kinds.”6

We must hold onto the truth that God is good, even when it doesn’t seem that way. Do not be lied to! For God’s goodness is a greater truth than the ephemeral nature of our circumstances (be they good or be they ill). It is not God who changes, it is we who change. If my view of God is dependent upon my life circumstance, then He will either be an angel or a viper depending on how I feel.

So what of cancer?

What do we make of cancer in the face of an all-good God whose modus operandi is redemption? In the hands of this God, we can count it as joy. For just as it is with any trial or tragedy or pain or suffering, cancer then becomes the stage on which redemption will unfold as the God of Redemption performs his good and perfect work. Many writers have spoken of suffering as gift. I’m there. I wasn’t, but through my own suffering I have been given new eyes. This is a hard lesson to be sure, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

I pray that in time, and perhaps already, Jake will see his cancer as a gift. The truly miraculous, extravagant goodness of God is not simply in the absence of evil (though that is almost unbelievably good!) it is in the fact that our God can take all that has been handed to us, even that which was intended as evil against us, and turn it into grace for us and glory for His name.7

So what grace will come and what glory will be given to God through Jake’s cancer? That’s for Jake to tell. I pray that he does. (I laughed just thinking about that conversation!) And when he does we will dance and sing and make a lot of noise. For as Barth says, “Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lighting.”8

If God is good and in Him is grace that doesn’t merely tolerate suffering but has the power to transform it into good, then all of life, even cancer, becomes an opportunity for gratitude.

A conversation that begins with this God always ends in “Thank you.”

Let it be so.

Cancer & Theology

The entire Cancer & Theology series is now available as a beautifully designed e-book, featuring a new introduction and three new, e-book-only essays from Adam J. Copeland, Joshua Longbrake, and Greg Syler. It is available exclusively for Amazon Kindle devices and apps (including most smartphones, tablets, and computers) for just $5.99.*

Buy Cancer & Theology [Kindle Edition] | $5.99
(Clicking this button will direct you to Amazon’s website. Your credit card will not be charged.)
*20% of all proceeds from the sale of the e-book will be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Brandon MickBrandon Lyman Mick is a poet, a reader, an aspiring pacifist, a would-be farmer, a student, and a teacher. He is the Assistant Pastor at Westkirk Presbyterian Church in Urbandale, IA. He and his wife Abbey have been students of suffering in the school of infertility for over five years. They are expecting their first child in December. He is overwhelmed by this grace. He is grateful.

  1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), II/1, 656. []
  2. I’m going to put as many footnotes as I can in this post because I know Jake likes them. But seriously, it is here that we should talk about the scriptural theme of exile. We should, but we won’t. This post would get way to long. Someone else should take up that theme in their post. Did Walter Brueggemann make the list of upcoming bloggers? He should totally interject at this juncture! []
  3. It might be important to note that I do not, personally, claim to be anything more than an aspiring pacifist! Jokes aside, I think the notions of struggle and war are appropriate here in a way they are not appropriate in relation to other humans. For a human bears the image of God, and disease bears a false image. Another great conversation for another day… []
  4. See Psalm 113:7. []
  5. James 1:16-17, ESV. []
  6. James 1:2. []
  7. See Romans 8:28. Also, read about Joseph. It’s somewhere near the beginning of the Old Testament. Seriously, God has been running this deal for a long, long time now! []
  8. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), IV/1, 41. []

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Cancer & Theology guest blog series

This post is a part of a series featuring an assortment of voices exploring how to think theologically about cancer and those who have it. Read the series introduction or view all posts in the series. UPDATE: The beautifully designed Cancer & Theology e-book includes the original essays as well as three new essays and a new introduction.

I’m writing the first paragraph last, now that I have finished the rest of this post. I’m writing it last because I wasn’t sure how this would all shake out and I wanted to begin with honesty. Now that it’s written I can say honestly that I’m grateful to be a part of this and offer my paltry contribution. When first I received the invitation from Jake, I thought, “Shit. I don’t want to get into this again. I don’t want to forage around in the mess that cancer has made in my own small experience of living and dying.” But resistance, like pain and suffering, is a good teacher. Cancer evokes fear and anxiety, and confronts one with the reality of finitude — often much sooner than one wants to be confronted with that reality. So I paid attention to my resistance and realized that there is no “getting back into this again” because one is never out of it. Once you have been existentially punched in the gut with something like cancer, you never quite breathe the same way again. You breathe, but you breathe a bit more carefully and gratefully. So thanks, Jake, and way to go, me, for choosing to write toward the very end after so many brilliant voices have already spoken.

My parents were divorced when I was five years old. Although my father lived a mere 20 minutes or so away as the crow flies, my relationship with him was among the most emotionally distant and disconnected of my entire life. For all practical purposes, my Uncle Mike (Fulton) was the closest thing I had to a father growing up.

Mike Fulton was a curious combination of a man: a landscape artist who taught art at the high school I attended; a closet cowboy living in northeast Ohio known for his signature cowboy boots and pearl-snap western shirts; a devout Lutheran who was born and raised in the Missouri Synod church; and an avid, if not staunch Notre Dame fan.

I was a freshly minted teenager when Mike Fulton married my mother’s youngest sister, Vickie, and during the formative years in my life that followed my Uncle Mike functionally was the closest thing that I had to a father. In spite of a lifetime of conflicted feelings about my biological father, eventually I came to realize that the fathering my Uncle Mike provided was more than sufficient.

Mike Fulton took me to the sporting goods store in Medina to help me purchase my first jock strap and athletic cup before 7th grade football. Many Saturdays he would take my brother and me to Taco Bell so we could eat cheap bean-and-cheese burritos. And before my first real date, he told me, “A little kiss won’t hurt anyone, but keep your hands to yourself.” But perhaps more than anything, he taught me to respect women through his own indefatigable care for my Aunt Vickie and patience with her sisters.

Cancer came to visit my Uncle Mike many years ago and he lived through the initial bout. It returned to stay in 2007. From 2007 to August of 2009 we made trips too numerous to count to visit my Uncle Mike and Aunt Vickie. Holidays, school breaks, during the summer I would load my own two boys in the car and we would make the 9 1/2 hour drive from Dubuque to the log house in the country where they lived in southern Medina county (Ohio).

The rhythm of our visits was simple: we would sit together, talk and watch sports on TV, go outside and “putz around the yard,” as he liked to say, then repeat. He would take us on long drives through Amish country in his truck. And he loved to sit on the front porch of the house, easel and charcoal in hand, and watch us play whiffle ball in the vast front yard of the country home while he sketched.

The school we attended with my Uncle Mike for over two years had a specific curriculum: learning to befriend suffering, confronting mortality, and living with and through dying. Ernst Becker writes, “Education for man [sic] means facing up to his natural impotence and death.” As Luther urged us: “I say die, i.e., taste death as though it were present.” It is only if you “taste” death with the lips of your living body that you can know emotionally that you are a creature who will die.

Among other things, in the face of what Ernst Becker called our human “immortality projects” — all of our heroic attempts at denying and defying death — cancer compels one to come to terms with our finitude. In Jesus Christ God stares into the face of finitude, steps into it, embraces it, and then calls it out of its tomb into a life of freedom characterized not by heroism, but by trust, vulnerability and promise.

It’s one thing to think about or ponder mortality or finitude from a somewhat removed academic distance; it’s quite another thing to be confronted with the reality of death through the life of someone you love. But both of these pale in comparison to the existential punch in the gut that occurs when something like cancer comes to roost in your own body. No one knows what this is like except the person who is living with it.

And so we would simply go and spend time with my Uncle Mike. We would talk and sometimes not talk; joke around and sometimes cry; eat pie when Mike was able, play whiffle ball so he could watch and sketch, and putz around in the yard. In short, we would try to live it with him.

In the last chapter of the fourth volume of Frederick Buechner’s memoirs, The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, he tells of the final conversation he had with his brother Jamie, who was dying from “cancer of virtually everything.” Buechner told his brother that he had loved him as much as he had ever loved anybody in his life, to which Jamie responded that Freddie had been a wonderful brother. I had a similar conversation with my Uncle Mike about a month before he died. I introduced him to the writing of Wendell Berry, America’s farmer poet, and just about every visit we would discuss whichever of Berry’s books he had been reading. I read a short excerpt for him from Andy Catlett: Early Travels: A Novel, where Berry suggests that the great question to ponder at the end of one’s life — or anytime for that matter — is if you “have been grateful enough for love received and given.” And then we wept. And then we prayed (at his request):

“Dear God, bring us through the night and into the light. Bring us through pain into peace. Bring us through death into life. Be with us wherever we go, and with everyone we love. In Christ’s name we ask it. Amen.”

Mike said he was ready to die, and wanted me to assure him that I would take care of his funeral service and all of the arrangements at church per the many conversations we had had about those matters. I assured him that I would, and then told him that I loved him, that he had been like a father to me and I wanted him to know that. It is a gift to be loved truly; it is a blessing to truly love another.

What counsel might I suggest in lieu of the well-intentioned but trite theological platitudes so often offered in response to a crisis such as a cancer diagnosis? What I have to offer is not so much something that one says as it is something a person and (hopefully) a community seek to live and embody: I don’t know what to say and I don’t know what to do, but I’m going to stick with you until we figure it out. Although it is a long day’s dying for us all, the shadows wane, and God’s promise of new life in Jesus Christ casts light on the land of the living as well.

Cancer & Theology

The entire Cancer & Theology series is now available as a beautifully designed e-book, featuring a new introduction and three new, e-book-only essays from Adam J. Copeland, Joshua Longbrake, and Greg Syler. It is available exclusively for Amazon Kindle devices and apps (including most smartphones, tablets, and computers) for just $5.99.*

Buy Cancer & Theology [Kindle Edition] | $5.99
(Clicking this button will direct you to Amazon’s website. Your credit card will not be charged.)
*20% of all proceeds from the sale of the e-book will be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Nate FrambachNate is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is Professor of Youth, Culture & Mission at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He and is the author of Emerging Ministry: Being Church Today and a contributor to The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices.

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Cancer & Theology guest blog series

This post is a part of a series featuring an assortment of voices exploring how to think theologically about cancer and those who have it. Read the series introduction or view all posts in the series. UPDATE: The beautifully designed Cancer & Theology e-book includes the original essays as well as three new essays and a new introduction.

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for several weeks now, listening intently to life around me in hopes that I would find some wise words to share. I was listening to a sermon by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wherein she talks about some things people say to comfort those going through difficult times. One of the classics she brilliantly framed was, “When a door closes, God opens a window.” Nadia’s response? “It makes me want to ask exactly where is that window so I can push them the hell out of it.” I shook my fist in the air in affirmation of her perfect response to something I heard far too often during my own journey a few years back.

You see, I am a cancer survivor.

I say that with some level of pride, but mostly as an encouragement to people like Jake and the millions of others facing this disease. My journey with the same disease as Jake began as I was racing through life to finish an undergraduate degree in anticipation of seminary, working full time as a youth and family minister, and raising an amazing son (age 12 at the time), detailing cars on the side to help pay for college, and loving my wife, Lorice, in the in-between moments. I felt like I could do and accomplish anything in those years leading up to my diagnosis.

My journey through cancer began with a lump on my neck, persistent tiredness, fever, aches and pains that gave way to visits to doctors and eventually a specialist. A cadre of other doctors and technicians and a bevy of biopsies and tests led to a surgical biopsy. My wife was the first to hear the news that it didn’t look good from the surgeon and the next day she and I sat at his desk to hear the diagnosis together. Cancer. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. What began in an individual way quickly grew to include a small community, in fact, a few small communities. That’s what I’ve decided to write about. Cancer as a communal, theological event.

I’ve followed Jake’s blog since his diagnosis. I have to admit, it has stirred some pretty uncomfortable feelings in me. Things I haven’t thought much about since my treatment have rushed back into my mind in both good and bad ways. As I watched Jake’s video blog about losing his hair and ultimately coming to the conclusion that the right thing to do would be to shave his head, I found myself beginning to experience “manly moist eyes” and I wondered what it was about watching Jake’s process for reaching his conclusion that drew out such an emotional response from me. We are, after all, the sum of our parts and some of our parts are, well, hair!

Could it be, I reasoned, that in making the conscious choice to shave my head I was relinquishing some level of control over my circumstance or acknowledging that my disease was bigger than I? Letting go of my hair meant letting go of a piece of me. I decided to do the wise youth ministry thing and sell raffle tickets for the privilege of being the one to shave my head publicly at church. I had done things like kissing a fish to raise money before, so this was no big thing. Still, it was only in the letting go that I found my way into a new understanding of my disease. You see, shaving my head in a community setting, my faith community, reminded me that my family and I were not alone in our walk with cancer.

Can cancer be thought of as a communal event? Can we think about cancer as a communal, theological event? I’d argue yes! (And… no) That’s a terribly Lutheran response, I realize this, but stay with me for an explanation. Yes because the very point of being in community is the mutual care and concern we share with each other. 

I found that while going through chemo treatments, the same type and duration as our friend Jake, my greatest supporters were found in community. Community took different forms for me. There was the community of family and close friends. There was the community of faith found in the congregation to which I belonged. And there was the community of doctors, nurses, technicians and other patients I found during treatment at Gulfcoast Oncology in St. Petersburg, FL (shout out to Dr. Knipe!). Each of these communities walked with me in my healing and in my faith. Each strengthened me in a different way.

I experienced community as family and close friends sat with me in the hospital, doctors offices, and when I could do nothing but sit in silence as they sat with me. My wife became my strength infused by God’s presence to comfort me when I was sick to my stomach of being poked and prodded and stuck with needles. She held me as a surrogate for Christ and gave me hope for a day when we would be finished with cancer. Friends like Erik Mathre laughed with me and even made fun of me (in a good way) to reassure me that I was still normal.

I experienced community through my church as we gathered as God’s people around a call to worship and praise God together. Worship was central to our identity and I cherished being a part of these worship gatherings each week. In this gathering of Christ followers I raised my voice in thanksgiving most weeks, in outrage some weeks. Still, I was surrounded by people who loved and supported me and that gave me strength for the healing journey.

I have enjoyed watching Jake and his wife buying treats for the medical staff before going in for treatment. My wife and I did the same thing! Lutherans and food, what can I say? Is it possible to experience a community, theologically speaking, in the form of doctors, nurses, technicians, and other patients. Yes! I experienced Christ’s hands and feet moving around me during treatments and subsequent visits for fluids and other medications. My physical healing met with emotional and spiritual healing in what could have been a church adorned with IV stands and blood pressure cuffs. I shared in mutual consolation with the other worship attendees, each in their own pew (or treatment chair) and each with a story to share.

Can cancer and communal theology always stand up? No, because not everyone in our communities will be willing to enter into the conversation or journey as it unfolds. I watched other patients around me give up. I watched as they succumbed to the disease for a variety of reasons without any desire to talk to me or caregivers. I watched as families and friends reached out to these patients only to be rejected with a rude rebuff or silence. Still, I suppose even the ones who sit in silent anger or surrender as well as the ones they dismiss live in a kind of community together anyway.

I found another line form Nadia’s sermon helpful here. “When someone says something so vapidly optimistic to you, it’s really about them, it’s about the fact that they simply cannot allow themselves to entertain the finality and pain of death, so instead they turn it into a Precious Moments greeting card.”

I think that’s what is behind most of the unfortunate expressions of consolation offered by our human brothers and sisters created in God’s image. People don’t say these things to intentionally dismiss the pain and suffering of the one with cancer. They don’t say these things truly inspired by God to provide comfort (or at least that’s what I think). They say them because that’s what they’ve heard others say or because they’re own defense mechanisms and rationalizations lead them to say them.

Jake asked his guest bloggers to provide alternatives to the cliche sayings too often uttered. As the blog series has progressed I’ve read some great options, including a take on one of my favorite lines as a pastor of three years. “That sucks.” But, since that one has been addressed, more or less, I can share one of the most valuable things I heard during my illness. “I care about you. How can I pray for you?”

In community we often pray for others, for the sick and dying, for the suffering, for our world, for our church. The most powerful memory for me was that another person would care enough to ask me, ask me specifically, what it was I needed them to pray for on my behalf.

The best community experiences are shared around life’s events, around our stories, and when we care enough to pray intentionally for one another.

Cancer & Theology

The entire Cancer & Theology series is now available as a beautifully designed e-book, featuring a new introduction and three new, e-book-only essays from Adam J. Copeland, Joshua Longbrake, and Greg Syler. It is available exclusively for Amazon Kindle devices and apps (including most smartphones, tablets, and computers) for just $5.99.*

Buy Cancer & Theology [Kindle Edition] | $5.99
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*20% of all proceeds from the sale of the e-book will be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Paul AmlinPaul Amlin is a former professional lay youth worker and currently serves as a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Marion, IA. Paul has a passion for finding creative ways to walk with people into discipleship in Christ, and believes in finding the intersection between creative worship, music, and education to create interesting if not unique ways of drawing people into ‘being church’ today. He is a survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma.

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