In anticipation of a stellar 80° day, Andy and I headed out Saturday morning to explore the John Muir Historic Site. We toured a visitor’s center and the Martinez home where the famous “wilderness tramp” John Muir lived and raised a family for 24 years.

John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 to strict Presbyterian parents, who immigrated to Wisconsin when John was still a boy. He showed promise as an inventor, an interest that motivated him to study at university. But before graduating—he dropped out in 1863—he made a tour on foot of Iowa, Illinois, and Canada and acquired a taste for the wilderness.

Later at age 29, employed by an Indianapolis carriage parts manufacturer, a factory mishap changed his life forever. A metal file broke in his hand, and a piece of it jabbed his right eye, blinding him. A doctor bandaged the wound and prescribed quiet rest in a dark room for four weeks.

During this recovery period, Muir began to evaluate his life and loves, and realized that there was a lot of world he wanted to see. He set out to discover the riches and lessons nature could teach him, first with a 1000-mile walk to Florida and then to California where he fell in love with what we now call Yosemite Valley. He lived in the High Sierra, tending sheep or operating a sawmill, but mostly exploring, for four continuous years. During this time, he began to journal his findings and to publish magazine articles extolling the beauty and grandeur of Yosemite. His writings drew attention to its vast natural resources, the necessity of its preservation, and his own exploits off the grid.

Muir’s remarkable story goes on, but I want to reflect on the fact that a brilliant man went off the grid at least twice: from 1863 to 1866 and from 1869 through 1873. In both instances, he came back refreshed and resolved to secure and preserve natural wonders. His most potent methods were to write about his wilderness observations and experiences and to relate to influential people, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and President Teddy Roosevelt. He is known as the Father of the National Park System and was the first president of the Sierra Club.

Four years off the grid in Yosemite, but writing and taking notes, became the seedbed for great ideas and a significant impact on American life. As I pondered the correlation between social withdrawal and public impact, I realized that Muir’s life runs somewhat in parallel to the Apostle Paul and to Jesus.

The Apostle Paul was confronted by the risen Christ (Acts 9) and brought into Damascus to be instructed by Ananias. After this dramatic conversion, he withdrew from public life for at least three years. When he emerged from this quiet learning period, he itinerated all over the Mediterranean region to proclaim the gospel, establish churches, and write letters comprising a good part of the New Testament.

Jesus lived an obscure life for thirty years before changing the water into wine in Cana and becoming a locally known figure. After his baptism, he was sent by God’s Spirit into the wilderness for forty days. He returned to civilization and began calling disciples to himself and launching his ministry. His public life was punctuated by forays to quiet places for contemplation. His creative “product,” unlike Muir and Paul’s writings, was relationships and public teaching. He never wrote a book, leaving that task to the four gospel writers, but established his earthly legacy through the development of many disciples as preachers, teachers, and church planters.

For several years, based on what I still think was “a word from the Lord,” I expected that my contribution as a Christian leader to the church would be more prominent and influential than it has turned out to be. What form that leadership would have taken was never fully revealed, though I felt I was inching closer a couple of times. I felt the Lord preparing me for a leadership role of some impact.

But like Jesus’ Messiah-ship, which turned out looking a lot different than Jewish leaders of his day expected, the path God set for me has involved hardship and ridicule and failure (especially the 2012 PCUSA legal defeats that led to the sea change in that denomination). It has included life-threatening illness that took me out of full-time work, and academic forces beyond my control that truncated a future as a seminary teacher. These setbacks and redirections have channeled my energies into part-time hospital chaplaincy and into writing a memoir about my experiences. It is not easy for me to say this: I was disappointed and even shaken that I misunderstood God’s appointment.

Nevertheless I affirm that God knows what he is doing with my life. I am at peace now with the call to live as faithfully and excellently as I can within my present context and to remain open to his continued direction. Power and influence take many forms, some of which I may not actually want anymore. But writing something true, worthy, and thought-provoking may become my means of leading people to Jesus’ calling in their lives. As my dad used to say, “The one who has the pen has the power” (Naegeli’s Law #3).

The stories I have shared today—of John Muir, the Apostle Paul, and our Savior Jesus Christ—remind me that good things come out of quiet obscurity. I can expect to thrive and be joyful and do some good as long as I stay closely in tune with the one singing the melody in my life. For now, that means (in part) transcribing the music I hear onto the written page, from which others perhaps can sing the lead and be heard.

 

 

I’ve been on the road, driving alone in our little Sprinter van conversion RV, to meet Darling Daughter A in Ashland, Oregon. It’s a drive one can easily accomplish in one day, but I left Wednesday afternoon to get the first three hours under my belt. Without really planning it this way, I have had a mini-retreat. Driving in the quiet, enjoying the scenery, occasionally listening to music, stopping every once in awhile to stretch. It’s good for the soul! I recommend it.

Sometimes a person just has to get away, into the quiet, in order to gain perspective. The daily discipline of “quiet time” allows us to listen to God and examine our lives. One need not go on a road trip to accomplish this task, but every once in awhile an extended “time away” (even at home) refreshes the spirit. I have experienced significant spiritual breakthroughs in times like this and am open again.

In the silence, I realize one question is a trigger for my anxiety: Am I spending my time on the most important things? I often wonder if today’s precious hours are being spent properly. “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). Am I doing what God wants me to be doing? Doubt that I am has plagued me for a few years, from a career perspective. It seems to be coming to a head as my husband and I discuss retirement (some time in the future). Like, Wait, I’m still working on, “What do I want be when I grow up?”

It is possible for me to get quite tied up in knots about this, and I know full well it is a form of obsession, diffuse in its focus, and therefore in the category of anxiety rather than worry. Worry tends to be focused on more realistic, specific concerns. I face the Life Question every day, because of course I have a long list of unfinished projects, home improvement tasks awaiting attention, four books to write, and relationships to maintain. Which is the most important to work on today? Half the time, I don’t know. I recognize that I can suffer from analysis paralysis, otherwise known as “overthinking.” Throw in a little perfectionism, and you have a recipe for emotional gridlock.

But wait, there’s more: experience a life-threatening illness that carries with it an abysmal 5-year survival rate. [I just celebrated Year 3 of those 5, and expect a full lifespan.] The tension surrounding the time question builds. Could it be that one of God’s purposes in carrying me through lung cancer was to explore this particular growth area? God has invited me to re-learn how to live in the present, make the most of every encounter, and consider the value of what I used to dismiss as trivial pursuit.

A corollary to the fear of Time-Wasting is the Bucket List idea: what’s on my list and how much time do I have left to fulfill those dreams? I was speaking with a patient earlier this week, and he told me, when asked how he was doing in his spirit, “I’ve done everything on my bucket list, and I no longer know what the purpose of my life is.” Wow! What a great entry into a meaningful conversation on the Purpose of Now.

I realize that most of my anxiety has to do with the future. My daughters laugh at me as dinner winds down and conversation gets goofy, and I change the subject to “What’s up tomorrow?” or “Here’s tomorrow’s plan.” Over decades time I have under-appreciated what is going on right now and often have not been present to it. It’s odd, because when I do actually rest in the present, I feel safe and secure, led by God. I have the capacity to put my heart and soul into whatever I am doing and get lost in time. Not very often do I do this, but I can.

Those who are overwhelmed by the present cope by diverting their attention to something fun or engaging: needlework such as counted cross-stitch is excellent for requiring concentration, and I have found backpacking does the same thing for me. You either center down and concentrate in a very small circle of activity, or you do something repetitive and concentrate on breathing. I know people who find their refuge in gardening, in making music, in fly fishing, and in painting. These activities are calming because they put us in touch (whether we realize it or not) with our Creator, who is saying right here and right now, “Peace be with you.”

The original impetus for writing on anxiety came in the form of an invitation from the Lung Cancer Alliance folks, to share on the topic for a webinar in December 2017. In preparation, I am keeping a personal anxiety journal, just for the heck of it, so that I have plenty of current illustrations!

Okay, I admit I am feeling a little anxious these days. I am looking forward to my April 26 CT scan, a routine image every six months to check for signs of a cancer reoccurrence. One is said to have “scanxiety” in anticipation of one’s periodic scans. Mine is a very specific and temporary concern, and then when the scan comes back “all clear,” I go back to a state of relative serenity— until the next one. One of my coping mechanisms is to keep busy and find wholesome distractions to divert my thoughts from dwelling on something (a scan) that is going to happen, no matter what. Later this week my distraction is to see three plays at the Ashland (Oregon) Shakespeare Festival. I’m hoping Henry IV (Part I) and Julius Caesar will do the trick!

Seriously, though, my little bit of anxiety is nothing compared to the build up of community-wide, even national anxiety. It depends on where you live, how much exposure to world news you get, and life circumstances or age encroaching upon you.

I started noticing this more corporate anxiety right after 9/11. A mother of young children, a parishioner of mine, freaked out about the horrific event and feared for the safety of her toddlers. She watched replays of the event night and day. Her anxiety reached irrational levels, leading to her refusal to let her children stay in the church nursery during worship and Sunday school.

More recently, I observe that drivers on the road are more tightly wound than ever before. Admittedly, I live in an area known for its legendary, impossible traffic. There is no longer a rush “hour”; the morning commute starts at 5:30 and continues until 9:30; the afternoon commute in the opposite direction starts as early as 3:30 and goes until 7 o’clock. It’s a jungle out there. The condition has not engendered virtue among drivers though. Rather, as people get more frustrated, they take more chances. They become rude and self-entitled. They go after motorcyclists who have some special traffic privileges in the state of California. They speed when the slightest bit of black pavement opens in front of them, or they honk their horns. [It is possible that these behaviors are not signs of anxiety but of anger. . . I concede the point. But their bad manners cause me anxiety, I can tell you that!]

Nowadays, I think a blanket of generalized anxiety has enveloped Americans with fears of terrorism, the possible loss of health care insurance coverage, a President and Congress moving in uncharted directions, and hearing a political or religious point of view one deems threatening. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis have I been aware of such angst. The fact that every act of violence, every unusual (even rare) occurrence, is broadcast not only during the News Hour but also across social media 24/7 does not help a person keep perspective. This week, for two hours on Facebook, it was possible to watch in horror as a crazed individual kills another in cold blood and posts the video in real time.

What is a person to do? How would knowing the Risen Christ make a difference when we feel like we are taking a bath in anxious waters? Jesus says, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33). The NIV translates this passage, “In the world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” Jesus overcame the world—and the devil and death also—by his own death and resurrection. God is bigger than all of creation and any problem, and we are invited to believe that God is at work through both creation and difficulty. His work does not necessarily prevent pain and suffering for me in the short term, but God is gaining the victory over all the enemies that make humans suffer. The fact that God, the Lord of History, is working things out over time is the source of our hope:

20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  —1 Corinthians15:20-26

He will prevail, and therefore so shall we.

Tomorrow I will draw from the Apostle Paul, who experienced plenty of pain and hardship in the course of his ministry, and yet seemed remarkably free of anxiety and worry. He is going to give us some ideas about how we can handle anxiety in the day-to-day matters that bother us.

Anxiety lurks at the edges of my mental and spiritual life. I come by it honestly, that is, I grew up in an anxious home. It is part of my Christian testimony: Jesus’ gracious invasion into my awareness and his Spirit’s residence in my soul for 47 (!) years definitely changed my course by moderating anxiety’s influence. For this I am deeply grateful.

So when cancer attempted to take over my body in 2013-14, and in the three years of cancer-freedom since then, the question of anxiety was forefront in my mind. I blogged about it at the time, and made the conscious choice not to let it get the better of me. What has surprised me, though, is the potential for worry and anxiety three years out! I’m calling it “survivor anxiety,” and it rears its ugly head as I prepare for the periodic CT scans (“scanxiety”) or await lab results or hear about a lung cancer patient who didn’t make it. This is real life not only for me but also for countless lung patients. In what ways does God’s Word address this besetting condition of my soul?

We can do no better than to look to the life of our Savior Jesus Christ for clues, and Holy Week is as good a time as any to make this examination.

Sunday morning at church, the children processed down the aisles waiving their palm branches and encouraging the rest of us to sing our “Hosannas” with gusto. Thus began the reenactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a few days before “the passion.” One day he is publicly welcomed, feted, and praised. Five days later he is tried, convicted, and crucified. A heartbreaking downfall.

And yet, none of these events was outside of Jesus’ foreknowledge. The gospels indicate that Jesus was aware of and was following a timetable—arranged by his heavenly Father—that took him to Jerusalem. He had previously visited the great city as a private citizen, but this entry was a public one and the launch of an amazing package of symbols, statements, and, ultimately, sacrifice that were the climax of his ministry life.

His heavenly Father had revealed the plan: “You have five days to live.”

As an aside, I ministered to a woman in my city for several months, after her doctor informed her that her cancer treatment was not working and she had three weeks to live. One of her first “orders of business” was to ask for a minister to consult with her, after a 25-year absence from church fellowship. I had the privilege of walking alongside her, helping her process her tenuous relationship with God. Then we parted for a time presumably to allow her privacy with her family and to make final arrangements. The plan was that her daughter would call me when death occurred, and I would do the memorial service. I didn’t hear from the family for months and thought perhaps they had dropped the ball. So I called the family home, and the woman herself answered! She was still alive, though much weaker, and still understanding that death was right around the corner. Her only anxiety revolved around the question of why she hadn’t died yet.

Luke records in his gospel that at a critical juncture Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51-53). He took the bridle off his public ministry, went boldly to Jerusalem, said the prophetic things, and did the provocative miracles that would bring the issue of his identity to a head.

My question is this: was Jesus worried about what was going to happen to him? Reading the gospel account from Luke 9 forward, one gets no inkling that Jesus was anything but resolved about his mission. In fact, later in Luke 12, we find Jesus giving his famous sermon about worry! “Do not worry about your life . . .”!

What about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem? Was anxiety among the feelings he carried while riding on that donkey? As he paraded up the hillside toward the temple, and the crowd shouted “Hosanna,” he knew death was only five days away, but we see no signs of anxiety. I suppose he could have been tense, on alert, hyper-vigilant, watching the political signs around him, but he certainly showed no signs of fear or foreboding; in fact, he chose this display and incorporated well-placed symbols into the celebration. Riding a donkey spoke volumes: “I may be the son of David, but I am unlike any king you have ever seen.”

As his week progresses, we perhaps see some developments in Jesus’ mental state. For now, it would be good to pause and ask ourselves the question, How would I handle the knowledge that I had five days to live? What did Jesus have that enabled him to proceed through his last days in confidence and resolve? Could I have that same serenity as I move through my own life toward its inevitable end?

Today’s entry is one more context-setting blog, and then I think tomorrow I can start in on some Holy Week reflections. One of the more interesting ministry directions I have taken in the last year and a half is to involve myself helping people who suffer from lung disease (sometimes cancer, but more likely asthma, COPD, or emphysema). When I was diagnosed with lung cancer in the fall of 2013, I was introduced to a new community of “my people,” those for whom breathing is an appreciated gift and intentional effort.

Part of my recovery in 2014 required me to undergo the Pulmonary Rehab program at John Muir Medical Center (Concord Campus). Participating in that seven-week discipline—which included class instruction and discussion as well as medically supervised gym workouts—opened my eyes to a needy population. I was soon asked to teach one of the units, specifically on “activities of daily living.” So now, once a month, I go in and entertain them with demonstrations, recommendations, website links, and other instructional input to help them function independently at home. Great fun, for sure, and keeps me in touch with a vulnerable group of people.

The second contribution I am making to lung health is through the Lung Cancer Alliance (LCA) in Washington, D.C. This fine group of people is supporting all kinds of efforts, with the hope of reducing the incidence of lung cancer, catching it earlier, finding new treatments, and supporting patients and their families with useful resources. The organization has a legislative branch that raises awareness among Members of Congress, drafts bills, and promotes funding for research of the disease and its cure. I made a trip to D.C. last month in order to meet with legislative aides for the two California Senators, Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris (see me here with Senator Feinstein, whom I met out in the hallway), my Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, and Senator Marco Rubio (R–Florida) in hopes of convincing him to co-sponsor a bipartisan research study bill with Senator Feinstein.

One of my LCA assignments, to be fulfilled next December, is to contribute to a webinar on the topic “Survivor Anxiety.” I had shared with one of the staffers that after three years, I still suffer from scanxiety (getting anxious right before or after a periodic follow-up CT scan) and certain events can trigger an anxious reaction in me. So between now and December, I am keeping an “anxiety journal” and pondering—in a good, non-anxious way, I hope—how to address what turns out to be a common experience of cancer sufferers.

I share all this by way of introduction to this week’s reflections on the events of Jesus’ last few days of life prior to his resurrection. I am going to look at some biblical texts through the lens of anxiety. Particularly this week I shall try to imagine how Jesus managed himself through the horrific unfolding of events leading to his excruciating death on the cross. I anticipate that we will learn something together about worry and obsession over the things that might happen to us, but the goal is to discover the resources we have in Christ that will enable to walk our own journeys with poise and confidence.

2Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.
3And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message,
so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ,
for which I am in chains.
4Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.
5Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders;
make the most of every opportunity.
6Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt
so that you may know how to answer everyone.

I have been a morning person my whole life. In the evenings we have a family rule, “No major decisions after 9 p.m.” But in the morning, I feel almost invincible. This life pattern was enhanced last year while I was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. My best, most productive hours of the day were between 3 and 8 a.m., and then the day’s treatment would knock me flat again and keep me sleepy throughout the afternoon and evening.

This morning, my alarm clock went off at 3 a.m. Not for the same reason—something much more fun. In ten days I will be taking an early morning flight to Istanbul, for a two-week tour of New Testament sites in Turkey and Greece with a Fuller alumni group. There is a ten-hour time difference between California and Turkey, and I have learned over the years that a “cold turkey” time switch does not work for me. So beginning last week, I have been shortening my days by thirty minutes, adjusting the schedules for meds and meals gradually. By the time I leave, I will be on Istanbul time.

It’s getting tougher now, because as of today, my bedtime will be prior to Andy’s arrival home from work. I freely admit the social inconvenience of such a method. Andy is a very good sport even though he thinks I’m a little nutty. But the payoff is so completely worth it, I press on. Today, though, my eyes are a little heavy even here at the laptop.

The Apostle Paul has written a stellar letter to the church in Colossae, and now he can’t really finish the epistle without one more practical admonition to pray, to say awake, and to give thanks. He started the letter with a prayer for them and now circles back to that same theme, encouraging them to pray as he does and now especially for him.

It makes me wonder what was on Paul’s mind when he said to “be watchful” (literally, stay awake). Perhaps the embarrassing story of the three close disciples of Jesus, who fell asleep in prayer on Gethsemane, much to the Lord’s disappointment. Perhaps in his later years, Paul is having a harder time staying awake in periods of solitude and silence. Or maybe his joyful anticipation of Christ’s return is enough to keep him vigilant and on guard so as to be ready when the Lord shows up.

What I do know is that it is hard for me to stay awake through prolonged periods of prayer. So to “devote myself to prayer,” I have to turn in that direction several times a day until I have covered the bases. Paul asks that one of those bases be his needs and God’s advance preparation of people with whom Paul will later share the gospel. He is always on the lookout for opportunity, and when it crosses his path he is ready with speech “full of grace, seasoned with salt,” ready with an answer to any sort of question that might come his way. This is one very good reason to pray for one’s pastor—Paul’s need is universal.

And we really must be ready for whatever comes. The week’s news bombards us with “what if” scenarios: what if I had only eight minutes to live in a plane headed straight toward a mountain range? What if I were captured and my house burned to the ground by Muslims demanding my conversion? What if I were asked to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and ridiculed for holding to a traditional view of marriage? What if I got stuck on a railroad crossing as a train was approaching?

The fact is, if we are asleep at the wheel these days, there are plenty of things that can happen. Paul is clinging to the fact that prayer, alertness, and a spirit of thanksgiving are going to hold us fast in the Lord and help us acquire wisdom for the tough stands and the difficult work ahead. Where I live (San Francisco Bay Area), it is a challenge to maintain the freedom to worship and to demonstrate the Kingdom of God according to the Word of God. It’s a tough crowd, 95% unchurched, and liberalism of all kinds is status quo.

For this scenario, Paul simply asks for clarity in what he says, wisdom to navigate political/social waters, and the patience to engage in meaningful conversation with the goal in mind. We can ask for no less!

As we anticipate our 40th wedding anniversary in June, Andy and I recall one story we would just as soon forget. But because it holds a good lesson, we share it:

About three years into our marriage, Andy and I decided to take our first backpack trip together. It was a trail to Stanford Lakes in the Sierra Nevada. It must have been in the 8,000 to 9,000 ft. elevation range. What I remember is how out-of-breath I was and so tired I could not make it up this one hill. Andy, up ahead, was getting frustrated that my pace wasn’t faster. And when I insisted, in tears, that I was having a really hard time and needed to rest, he thought I was giving up (not an option) and giving in to something less than the mettle required as a backpacker. It was not a good day.

After one or two other experiences like this one, again at high altitude, and again through bouts of frustration on both our parts, I decided that the sport was not fun, not safe (for me), and I did not want to go anymore. Yes, I was “embittered” (to use Paul’s word in Colossians 3:19), enough that my hiatus from backpacking lasted about ten years. During that time, Andy went with buddies on some terrific and challenging trips. But he missed having me along.

My beloved later realized that in those early days he had not acted out of compassion, kindness, meekness, and humility (remember Paul’s list from Colossians 3:12-15). He also realized that it had been unfair to expect high performance in high altitude without enough training, and that it was no fun for me to be left behind.

Out of all this came Andy’s First Rule for hiking with your wife: your wife goes first. And his Second Rule: If you want to go ahead anyway, remember the first rule. Ever since then, even after I became fit and more experienced, he has hiked behind me on the trail instead of in front of me. He has adapted to my pace. Since it was slower than his normal pace, he took up bird watching. [Another Naegeli Law: If you can’t fix it, feature it!] He knows that I will never climb Mt. Whitney, but it is still okay. He is bearing with me and my limitations. All in all, Andy has found ways to love his wife and not make her bitter.

I share this story, with Andy’s permission, because it seems to capture the essence of what Paul was describing about husbands in relation to their wives:

19Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.”

The Hebrew here for “treat them harshly” is pikros, “to make bitter.”

Husbands, love your wives—agape them. Love them unconditionally for their sakes. Love them, bear with them, forgive them (from the previous paragraph in Colossians); in other words, do not exploit them, treat them as objects, apply unattainable standards to them, nor be unfair or unjust.

The parallel from Ephesians 5 puts it this way:

25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church
and gave himself up for her, . . .

In order for a husband to love his wife, he is called upon to “give himself up” for her. What would that look like? Meekness, kindness, compassion, humility, taking up the rear rather than forging on ahead. Does this sound familiar?

My take on the marriage issue is that both husband and wife are called to put the other first, to align their lives with the other, to submit together to the Lordship of Christ, to love each other despite faults and failings, to give themselves up for each other. Whether these actions come out of wifely submission or husbandly headship (a rationale not used in Colossians but in the Ephesians parallel) does not really matter. It ends up that two people are instructed to show mutual respect, tenderness, obedience, and cooperation in all aspects of life. In Christ, wife and husband are called to the same standard of behavior and attitude toward one another.

Any woman who has been told (by Paul) that now, in Christ, it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, you have equal standing before God (Galatians 3:28), is going to expect to be treated like a full-fledged human being. The balance of power between husband and wife is based on common humanity and the imago Dei. When power becomes unbalanced (which happens sometimes even without a couple realizing it), conscious mutual submission to the power of Jesus Christ is sought, and followed. One may not dominate or control the other (and believe me, in today’s world this applies both ways). One may not hide behind the authority/power/wishes of another nor assert authority/power/wishes merely on any assumption of superiority or priority. Two people come together not to blame or shame or demand, but to help each other live into the grace and mercy of God. They do that by appreciating the gifts the other brings, by solving problems together or deferring to the one with more expertise/knowledge or more at stake.

For twenty years, before I came down with lung cancer, Andy and I—with kids and friends usually—had many redeeming, wonderful backpack trips together. But the lessons learned in the late 1970s are needed once again, due to my new post-cancer limitations (missing a lung lobe and dealing with pronounced asthma). And to be honest—remember, this is mutual submission we are talking about—Andy has his own issues that come with creaky knees. So we have the opportunity to practice patience with each other and find new ways to enjoy this good earth and God’s creation. And we are still married!

 

 

 

 

 

As I dig down in earnest to write a book about my lung cancer experience of the past year, the dreaded “book proposal” has me delving into stuff I have studiously avoided so far: statistics. As part of my research, I attended last night’s Shine a Light on Lung Cancer presentation in my area. The sponsoring organization, Lung Cancer Alliance,  is an advocacy group raising awareness about its prevalence, promoting screening, and lobbying for more funds to go into research of its causes. Almost 200 Shine a Light events took place yesterday, as part of Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

The reason why I have avoided survivor-statistics is because they are so bad in the realm of lung cancer, especially for Stage III (mine was III-A) and IV. A year ago, I knew they were bad but it was easier to hold onto that amorphous concept than to hear how bad. My dear medical-scientist husband read the studies and confirmed my preference not to see them. Focusing on only one number—one— enabled me to concentrate on receiving God’s healing and participate in the plan for cure. After last night, I hold that my avoidance decision was a good call, and I highly recommend it.

But I do not recommend rolling over and playing dead, either. Somehow, today, after reeling a bit from the shock, my thoughts range somewhere between “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics” and “Bring ’Em On!” As the event MC—himself a seven-year survivor—said, “When I was diagnosed, the statistical chance of survival was 15%. I looked my doctor in the eye and said, ‘Tell me how I can be one of those 15%.’” My sentiments exactly! Especially for my readers who have never had cancer, becoming aware of the uphill battle (not to mention your own lung health) will enable you to be better citizens, better pastors, better neighbors and friends to those who must walk down this road. That could be 207,000 Americans in the next year, according to the CDC.

Last night’s speaking panel included my own surgeon and medical oncologist, plus an oncology nurse and a lung cancer survivor. How grateful I was all this year to have the interpretive skills and medical optimism of these two physicians—surgeon and oncologist, joined by equally positive radiology oncologist—to keep me focused on what turned out to be very effective treatment. But the contrast between their demeanor in the examining room and the seriousness of their numeric reports last night was shocking. Imagine working optimistically, creatively, wholeheartedly, and skillfully with statistics like those hanging over your head. But it was their courage that became my own, and I will be forever grateful for each one of them.

The oncology nurse brought me back to the chemo chair experience, where over time I was blessed by the caring ministrations of several nurses just like her. In the familiar intimacies of side-effect control, I realized again how safe these women made me feel. And despite the physical danger of the disease I was fighting, I was safe: safe emotionally, safe spiritually, even safe (in the shorter term) physically. All because they said, “We are here to help you get through this as comfortably as possible.” Mission accomplished, ladies!

Erik, the survivor on the panel, told stories that illustrated the importance of hope. Believe it or not, his surgeon not twenty minutes before the trip into the OR, told Erik, “We’re going to try get all those lymph nodes out; if we miss one, then you’re terminal.”

Why don’t you just shoot me? Good grief.

Erik spoke sincerely about the power of hope, and why we must follow the signs of hope with courage and persistence. We must keep doing medical research, because we do not know why 17.5% of all lung cancers occur in people who never smoked. We must celebrate a milestone this week, a recommendation by Medicare to cover lung cancer screening of high-risk people, starting in 2015.  We must keep working on surgical techniques that make the procedure safer and recovery quicker. We must keep researching targeted therapies. There are exciting signs of hope in all these areas, and we are emboldened to pursue the Beast and slay it once and for all.

So add this to “Naegeli’s Laws”: Statistics do not predict what happens to me!

 

Suicides, particularly by those of celebrity status, make the headlines. In Robin Williams’ case this summer, the world mourned the loss of a man tormented but treated for mental illness and addiction. We will never know what drove him to his final act, but we suspect that deep psychic pain was at its root. The inelegance of his method suggests that he was as improvisational in death as he was on stage. For this we wept and wondered.

In the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian helped approximately 130 people end their lives. Under Michigan law he was convicted for second-degree homicide and served over eight years in prison. At the present time, only three states in the Union permit physician-assisted suicide, or “death with dignity,” as proponents prefer to call it.

In one of those states, Oregon, Brittany Maynard has set a deadline for her own death after learning that she has an untreatable, aggressive brain cancer. She now possesses prescription drugs, prescribed by a doctor, that will take her life “on her terms.” The date for this final act is November 1, or “when the pain becomes unbearable,” whichever comes first. Meanwhile, Ms. Maynard appears on a YouTube video to explain her decision and advocate for “death with dignity” laws in more states.

Naegeli’s law number 13: Just because something is legal does not make it moral or right.

My mind and heart ache for someone way too young to die. I hate cancer and, as a survivor myself, I hate the collateral damage it is wreaking in our midst. People have been dying since Adam and Eve, so that is nothing new and to be expected, but we fear its processes no less. Except for cases of sudden, accidental death, it is quite possible to diagnose sickness unto death or, after death, to find out what happened. As data are gathered, we even know how disease progresses in many cases. The availability of such knowledge may be helpful for discussing treatment options, but in cases such as Ms. Maynard’s, that same knowledge can raise the level of anxiety and fear to intolerable levels.

The common word used by Ms. Maynard, her husband, and her mother to describe how they felt about her decision to end her life on her terms was “relief.” Relief from what? we ask. Relief from physical pain. Relief from loss of control. Relief from a diminished self. Even relief of other’s pain, as Ms. Maynard put it, “I’m choosing to suffer less, to put myself through less pain, and reduce the pain of my family.” What she is looking for is a beautiful, peaceful, painless, dignified death.

As a pastor having attended the bedside of many dying patients over the years, I insist that death, in general, is rude and outrageous. Having said that, the most beautiful deaths I have witnessed are the ones around which a loving family has sacrificed, and served, and lovingly attended. These deaths have followed nature’s course in a final submission to the ways of God, which entail finishing this life in order to move into eternity. One person’s process of dying is an invitation to family and friends to live selflessly, even nobly, and is one universal means by which people can grow in grace and character.

What I am most concerned about, however, is the fear we might be carrying that in our dying state we become dependent, unlovable, or ugly. This is a fear of the diminished self, and its basis, I think, is disbelief that anyone could ever love me in that state or condition. It would be a very frightening thing to believe that no one in my life loves me unconditionally, for that is what fear of the diminished self is all about. We all enjoy a certain amount of love from others, but what if we fear that it is conditional love dependent on me being strong, beautiful, or healthy? And what if we simply do not want anyone to see us diminished by the ravages of disease because we fear rejection?

As an aside, I remember hearing the shocking news of Princess Diana’s accidental death in a car crash, and thinking several thoughts: We will never see Diana grow old; we will forever remember her has the young and beautiful princess. The public never saw pictures of her injured body (and it would have been incredibly bad taste to have published them). Do you not think that this is a secret wish we all have? To be remembered in our heroic youth, undiminished and still beautiful?

That would work, except that it is a colossal denial of death. Ms. Maynard desires to “enjoy [her] days, surrounded by those [she] loves,” but by choosing death she is removing herself from them and cutting short their opportunity to love her back. And she is assuming that by taking death into her own hands, she can mitigate its rudeness and outrage. She may be gone by then, but those left behind will still have to deal with death’s reality. As we all do, whether it is “beautiful” or not.

This is only the first installment on my thoughts . . . there are ethical implications, societal trends, and theological reflections to share. But once again, tomorrow I have been called back for another round of jury selection, so I don’t know if I will be able to write. I promise, my next blog will bring the Word to life and death.

 

Frustration has risen lately, as I struggle to manage a different life than I had been leading in BC days. There are so many things I must do everyday in the category of “self-maintenance,” it feels like a full-time job. Whereas I used to track progress in maybe seven concurrent work projects, my new routine includes management of:

Medications, which are taken at 7 a.m., 7 p.m., and at bedtime. Some of these meds are my old standbys for “before cancer” (BC) conditions, but the new batch addresses the aftermath of lung cancer and surgery. Two different inhalers (with different delivery techniques) and one really large pill that is difficult to swallow mean I have to think carefully before each dose. And just in the past week, my doctor and I realized that one persistent symptom is probably a side effect of a medication rather than the condition it is treating! So we adjust the dose downward and monitor what happens.

Exercise, which can amount to as much as two hours a day, if I am faithful to the entire regimen of walking or hiking (2.5 to 3.5 miles) and stretch and strengthening workouts. I love the fact that I can move and breathe and have such beautiful Open Spaces, but two hours. Wow. That’s recorded in the green spiral notebook.

Food intake, the latest in the daily monitoring category, is now under the watchful eye of a nutritionist who is helping me break through the weight-loss barrier and make the effort to retrain my body that was whacked out during chemo. This month, we’re counting carbohydrates. That’s the blue notebook.

Breathing and air quality, which fluctuates from day to day depending on atmospheric conditions (monitored with an app), fog, my exercise intensity, and other factors God makes up on the spur of the moment just to keep things interesting. I’m supposed to use my pulse oximeter to measure blood oxygenation during exercise, and take peak flow readings three times a day. If I get short of breath and do not respond with certain actions, the situation can escalate uncomfortably. In the seven-week pulmonary rehab class, I learned how to head these episodes off at the pass, and as a result feel 95% fine 99% of the time. But vigilance is required, and data collection to identify triggers pays off. That’s in the pink notebook.

Self-management would not seem so time consuming if these activities were “second nature.” Pill taking is an exception, but exercise, healthful eating, and breathing are things that every human being needs. They are a way of life, right? When they get out of whack, though, either through illness or addiction, corrective action—otherwise known as discipline—must be applied. When one’s body has cancer, one has a new set of regimens to follow. [But every single doctor who has treated me in the last year is absolutely certain that my general fitness, conditioning, and healthful eating habits in BC days were major factors in my body’s fight against cancer. I have no reason to doubt them.]

Most people have the things-to-do-everyday list of projects or healthful habits to be monitoring, too. Putting myself in the pew, reading the thoughts of regular church goers, I can just hear them say, “So now you tell me there’s one more thing I need to take care of every day?” Add to the list:

Spiritual nurture, in the form of time set aside daily for prayer, Bible reading, and meditation. Yes, as I’ve admitted in the last couple of weeks, this discipline was lagging in light of all the others above . . . and yet, the answer is the same. When life gets out of balance and my spiritual life is not nurtured, symptoms start appearing (e.g. increased worry, a bit of aimlessness, or irritability). But if faith is truly a way of life the way I want to lead it, this action is not simply an activity added to an already full calendar, it like breathing and eating and exercising—I gotta do it or I will faint. Oh, by the way, spiritual nurture is tracked in the black moleskin notebook.

[The situation makes me wonder if there is a calendar system that can track all five of these self-management areas, plus my dates and billing and meeting logs, all in one notebook!]

The only way to do what is good for me is to undergo the discipline. I’ll be honest: I am not enjoying it at the moment, any of it (except maybe the walks while the weather has been so spectacular here). What I don’t like is that I have to do these things in order to avoid negative consequences. But how I feel about them is far less important than doing them faithfully now. There’s always the hope that later, they will yield good results that make life much more fun, healthy, and available for service. Didn’t the writer of Hebrews say basically that?

“Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

Tomorrow: How Lack of Discipline in the Church Imperils Its Health