"Wow, you used to have a lot more hair. When was that picture taken?" That was the comment the retail clerk at Sears made when she saw the shaggy-haired picture on my credit card. I'm new to this whole cancer thing so I made the mistake of saying, "Yeah, I just started chemo." That's not such a great conversation starter. It's almost as awkward as telling a stranger you're a pastor.
The sales woman did her best to respond to my revelation, drawing on her experience with a cousin who had cancer. The words came out in a careening run-on sentence,
"I'm sorry to hear that, my cousin had cancer, it was really hard, but it went into remission and we even had a party to celebrate when he was cured,
but then the cancer came back,
it was really terrible,
and he died..."
You could almost hear the background conversation in her head, "I really want to be helpful, but this isn't going well. Oh no, I'm crashing and burning here. Pull up! Pull up! Goose, I can't reach the ejection handle"
I'm not absolutely sure the Top Gun references came into play but you get the idea. The plane crashed and Goose was dead and my new salesperson friend was Maverick, left floating in the crash debris wondering where things went wrong.
She assured me that technology has come a long way and that I probably will be fine, but I left the conversation resolved to not bring up my cancer with strangers. Most people just don't know how to deal with it.
Knowing this has made me that much more grateful for the church. For all of the church's idiosyncracies and shortcomings, we know how to navigate the awkward truth of our mortality. Sickness and healing, mucking through the "slimy pit" and finding a rock to stand on (Psalm 40), complaining that our way is hidden from the Lord and flying on eagles wings (Isaiah 40) are the rhythms that animate our worship and work. God is not imagined by the congregation as a magical escape from the brokenness of the world, rather through the incarnation of Jesus we are anchored in the truth that God has entered in and walks alongside.
A reporter asked me yesterday if my cancer diagnosis has shaken my faith. I said, "Who am I to think that I am somehow exempt from the injustices of the world. I don't understand why it's happening but I know that God is with me in it, and, if anything, that has strengthened my faith."
My cancer may be awkward for others, but not so much for me. I'm scared and angry and confused but I am buoyed by the ordinary grace of local congregational life, where we walk together in the truth of death and resurrection.
In other news, I am a one-man drain-plugging machine right now. All of my hair is falling out. I'm glad to be shedding nose and back hair, but I'm going miss my eyebrows and eyelashes. Hopefully our pipes will survive all the Dran-O they will process in the coming weeks.
I'm feeling great this week. Gearing up to start chemo again on Monday and will be in the hospital through Friday of next week. Looking forward to killing more cancer cells.
Photo: I finally felt good enough this week to get out with my camera. This shows Spokane Falls adorned in fall colors.