Real Life and Cancer Sucks

The seasons of Lent and Easter have always been important to me. This year has been different. Ash Wednesday came and went without me taking any notice. The only time I was reminded that it was the season of Lent was when I went out for lunch and saw fish on the menu. Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, Rita and I skipped church. I cannot remember the last time I missed a Palm Sunday service. Instead we attended a funeral. I was there to support a friend whose sister-in-law died. My wife came for other reasons. The lady whose life we were remembering had passed away from cancer. A little over a year ago, within a month of my wife’s diagnosis, that she received similar news. Both faced and fought cancer with dignity and strength. Her battle lead to a memorial service on Palm Sunday.

I stood in the chapel with hundreds of other mourners listening to the stories of this amazing wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend, and woman that brought laughter and tears. This was a person whose definition of family was always expanding to include outsiders. Strangers were nothing more than future family members. She met her soulmate and husband at a young age and together they promised to do their marriage “right.” This couple lived, loved, worked, and laughed together. They managed to forge a marriage and life together the rest of us dream about. All the stories reinforced the fact that they managed to do marriage right.

About halfway through one of the stories the speaker mentioned that this lady met her soulmate and married in 1986, the same year Rita and I started our life together. Looking across the chapel at a husband mourning the loss of his partner in life and love was heartbreaking and sobering. On this morning I was standing beside my wife and partner of more than 30 years, and he was across the room with tears flowing down his face. I was there holding my wife’s hand, and he would never feel his wife’s hand again.

I am a self-described “theology nerd.” Over the years I have officiated many funerals. I still struggle to make sense of death. I did walk away from that service with a renewed passion for life. It was Jesus who suggested that worrying about tomorrow wasn’t worth the effort (Matthew 5:25-34). None of us are promised any moments beyond this one. On the Sunday as Rita and I walked away from a service of remembrance and celebration of a life well lived, I took my wife’s hand in mine and sent up a prayer of thanks for another moment.

Cancer – the long game

Cancer is an exercise in patience. It isn’t cured in one surgery. There is no magic cure-all. Procedures like radiation seem to go on and on. When all the surgeries and procedures have been dutifully completed, there are no guarantees. Fighting cancer is about the long game. It is slowly dawning on me that cancer might be a metaphor for life, work, and ministry. Living, raising a family, or working to make the world a better place requires patience. Even when we are patient and do our work with integrity, there are no guarantees. Stuff happens. People disappoint us. The unplanned and unexpected wreak havoc on families and ministries. The people and ministries that survive are in it for the long game.

In Psalm 23 David writes about a valley of death. Pretty depressing, especially if you quit reading at that point. If you push through and finish reading something unexpected emerges, a banqueting table! You can’t get to this table if you aren’t in it for the long game.

I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. Watching and giving witness as my wife bravely faces this disease, I am learning to appreciate the long game, the patient game. Every day when she gets up and faces another treatment, takes another pill, or visits another doctor she is chipping away and winning the battle.

I am learning about life by watching my wife.

Our marriage works. Not because we had a great wedding, but because we get up every day and figure out how to get through the day. When you string all the days together, those days become years and decades.

Great parents know that parenting is more than any given moment. It is about loving and being there through the good, bad, and ugly.

Effective ministry isn't about any one moment, good or bad. It is about getting up every day. Believing that God is present. It is about caring for the other person. It is about trusting God, even in the middle of a crisis. It is about the long game.

Cancer – 24 hours

In Matthew 6:34 Jesus tells his followers, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” As a husband who is watching his wife live through cancer, I am learning the truth about this. It started Wednesday afternoon when Rita went in for her ultrasound check-up. The procedure was supposed to be a routine step along the road to radiation treatment. In a moment it all changed. The medical staff saw something and ordered tests. We were going to have to wait 3-5 days to find out if this was a bump in the road to recovery or a major change in direction.

That was Wednesday. The sun set and the sun came up. I started the 500 mile drive from my meetings in Kansas to Denver. 8 hours, alone in my car, switching between NPR, the best of the 1980’s, and silence. Then the call came, about 24 hours after the first call. They had fast-tracked the biopsies. Instead of 3-5 days, it was 24 hours. The news was good! They didn’t find any cancer.

In an instant I moved from fear to joy.

For anyone who has been touched by cancer or loves someone battling this disease you are well acquainted with moments that seem to spin on a dime. One moment everything seems to be going well and then something unexpected happens. A moment of joy turns into anguish.

I am slowly learning the wisdom of living in the present. Too often I have put important things off until later. I have let the business of life get in the way of loving, caring, and spending time with the folks most important to me.

Take some time today. Call that friend or family member you have been meaning to talk to. Let them know how important they are. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

Cancer and Roller Coasters

I thought I had finished writing about cancer, then today happened. Rita went in for a check-up. It was supposed to be routine. Today they were going to check her lymph nodes and tomorrow she was going to be “mapped” in preparation of four weeks of radiation beginning in early May. This wasn’t an appointment to be concerned about. As a result I am in Kansas and Rita is in Denver. Then Rita texted me, “they are going to biopsy the lymph nodes and some breast tissue near the scar.” This is how it begins. They are “concerned” so they are choosing to be extra precautious. I am grateful for their concern. I am pleased they are double checking everything.

It doesn’t end there. I want assurances. Answers. I want this to be over.

A friend emailed me. His reflection is that physical roller coasters are more fun than emotional ones. I agree.

I am a person who wants assurances. And cancer is not terribly predictable. The medial staff do their best, but things happen.

I do know how this is going to turn out. We get results in 3-5 days. I am prying that everything comes back negative.

In the midst of all this there is an emerging silver lining. Rita and I are learning to live for today. Beyond this moment not much else is promised. We are discovering the power of prayer. Family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and people we have never met are praying. Both of us feel those prayers in real and unexpected ways. Words cannot begin to express our gratitude. In quiet and unanticipated ways God has shown up. Sometimes it’s in a conversation, a kind word, a touch on the shoulder, or a hug.

The tag line for the program I run is “See the Face of God in the City.” Over the past few months God has proven to be real. I have seen God’s face in the people I have encountered.

Cancer and the Lectionary

This past Sunday I preached at my home church. The gospel reading came from Luke 13:1-9. This passage starts by recounting two tragedies where innocent people die – the first group of people are slaughtered for no apparent reason by Pontius Pilate and the second group die when a tower collapses on them. The people are wondering why. Some conclude that both these incidents were acts of judgment by God. In response to all of this Jesus tells a story about a fig tree that wasn’t producing figs. There have been times during the past number of months when I have wondered if God was judging our family. What did we do to deserve this? As I have told our story of questioning God something unexpected happened. Other people have begun to share their stories of suffering. The common thread holding these stories together? Wondering where God is, what God is doing, and why God is doing it.

I want to propose that suffering is the great challenge of the Christian faith. Bad stuff happens, even to good people. Where is God in all of this?

This brings me back to the fig tree. The owner of the fig tree is frustrated, so frustrated that he orders the tree to be dug out and thrown away. If you are the fig tree, this would count as a disastrous moment! Death is looming. In a most unexpected way the gardener shows up and advocates for this tree. “Just give me one more year, I am sure I can turn this situation around.”

It is possible to read this passage assuming that God is the landowner, relenting and giving us one more chance. In this season of my wife’s cancer I have begun to see this passage through a new set of lenses. You see God is not the landowner, God is the gardener.

A gardener who is always there, always believing, always hopeful, even in the middle of difficulties. Seeing this passage through a new set of lenses has helped to restore my faith. Bad stuff has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen. People will die unexpectedly and unjustly. Sickness and disease will be present and unfair realities. Bad stuff comes from all kinds of sources – bad luck, bad people, and sometimes it is an inevitable consequence of being both human and mortal.

My faith is being restored by knowing that God is present – in sickness and in health.

Cancer – yes but

This weekend Rita got the news we have been praying for. The cancer and pre-cancer cells have been removed. It is out of her body! Now Rita can begin to focus on healing and prevention. Before that can happen there is another mammogram that needs to be scheduled. The doctors want to make sure that the cancer is gone and hasn’t resurfaced. I want 100% assurance. In the world of cancer this is not possible.

We are going to have to learn to live with a certain amount of uncertainty. Every treatment comes with a degree of risk. The risk can reduce the possibility of cancer coming back, but it can’t eliminate it.

In the middle of all this life still goes on. The sun still rises, every day. Bills still show up; interestingly they show up with certainty and on time.

There is this human need to know, to be secure. Yet Jesus suggested that this impulse isn’t terribly helpful. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…” (Matthew 6:25). The truth is that none of us are promised anything beyond right now. I always knew this intellectually. Giving witness to my wife of almost 30 years as she deals with this disease has been a powerful reminder about today.

We could choose to worry about what might happen or we can choose to live our lives, to be alive in the moment. I cannot and will not speak for Rita, but the invasion of cancer into our marriage has made me more grateful for what we have today. I am hopeful for tomorrow and the next 30 years. But I refuse to live in the world of what might happen. Quite honestly, even with the cancer, what we have is pretty cool.

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself…” (Matthew 6:34)

Cancer & God’s Will

There are some days I will always remember. November 27, 2002 is one such day. On that day I watched my friend die. Leukemia won. Three days later I officiated his funeral. It wasn’t my first funeral, but it was the first funeral of a close friend. Part of my responsibility that day included delivering the meditation. I won’t go into everything that I said, but near the end I made the following statement; “I am not here this afternoon to tell you that it was God’s will for Bryan to die.”

Today, thirteen years later, I stand by what I said.

For as long as I can remember I have struggled with the idea that everything that happens is somehow part of God’s plan. I am not alone in this debate. People of faith have been arguing about this for millennia. In the theological world it is the debate between predestination and free will. Are we just cogs in God’s grand plan?  Puppets controlled by the puppeteer.  Or do we have the freedom to make our own choices? Do we have a say in what happens?

As a pastor I have occasionally prayed the “panic prayer.” It goes something like, “God please heal this person, but if it isn’t your will then help us to accept what happens.” This type of prayer allows us to shift all the responsibility (blame) to God.  In some ways it is the modern equivalent of washing our hands of any significant role in God’s world. God is going to do what God is going to do and we cannot change the course of what will happen.

These concepts have been swirling around in a new way since Rita was diagnosed with cancer. The idea that God gave Rita cancer to somehow fulfill God’s will seems both small and mean. Put simply, cancer sucks. I cannot imagine any scenario where God would feel the need to create cancer.

This journey into cancer has tested my faith. I have wondered if God cares. At various times I have prayerfully demanded action. In many ways the quality of my faith has been weighed. Somehow in the middle of all of this I am getting to know a God who is really good at turning lemons into lemonade. For that I am learning to be thankful.

Cancer – numbers

One of the things that has become clear to Rita and me is that cancer has a whole lot in common with the gaming industry. It is about the numbers. (What follows are numbers that have be told to us by doctors, nurses and medical professionals; any mistakes in reporting are mine.) It goes something like this: 1 in 8 women (12.5%) will develop breast cancer sometime in their lives. Of the women who get a lumpectomy, 20% will require a follow-up surgery. In addition 20% of the women who have Rita’s form of cancer will see a reoccurrence. This can be reduced to 14% through 4 to 6 weeks of radiation and a regiment of tamoxifen for 5 years. Reoccurrence can be reduced another 2% by extending the tamoxifen for another 5 years.

On the surface all of this sounds wonderful. The odds are on our side.

Now this is what I hear: 1 in 8 and Rita is the 1. After Rita’s surgery the news came back that a second surgery was needed. We ended up on the wrong side, the 20% group. Radiation and tamoxifen will decrease the possibility of reoccurrence. What is going to prevent Rita from being on the short side of the stick? Now when someone says there is an 85% chance of success I wonder about the 15% group, after all being on the short-side is starting to feel familiar.

I want to know that everything is going to be OK. I want God to write in the sky or let me know in a dream that God has got this. It hasn’t happened. Our friends, co-workers, and family are supportive. They believe that we are going to beat this. On my good days I agree. Other days hope fades.

The Apostle Paul talks about faith, hope, and love. I can say that our love is strong. Our faith has been shaken. And then there is hope. Hope for healing. Hope for a future. Hope that we beat the odds.

Cancer – the body

A number of weeks ago I wrote about being furious with God. Some have wondered how an ordained minister of the gospel can feel this way. They feel that being angry with God is wrong; that anger is a significant step towards turning my back on everything I believe. This journey into cancer has not been easy. Watching someone I love face one surgery and now another tests everything I hold dear about my faith. This isn’t easy. My Christian faith and vocation has shaped our entire marriage. In 1986 Rita and I married after I finished my pastoral internship. On our second wedding anniversary we packed our truck and moved from Canada to Fresno, CA to go to seminary. While in seminary I interned in a United Methodist Church for three years. After seminary I was called to Denver to work as an associate pastor. After three years I moved on to DOOR, and for a number of years I pastored while running DOOR.

I do not think it is an understatement to say that my faith has shaped everything about the past 30 years. This has also been true for Rita.

To come to a point of anger and frustration with God was not part of my life plan.

God also has a way of showing up in the most unexpected ways. This week I have been reflecting on the Apostle Paul’s image of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.

For the past 10 weeks my faith in God has been shaken. But I am part of this living organism called the Body of Christ. Both of us our finding out that when our faith is shaken to the very core there are other parts of the body that pick up our unbelief and believe for us. We have given witness to this as friends have brought meals cooked with love. Others have given us a space to vent. Prayer warriors have prayed and others have sent emails reminding us that God is present. Those who have faced cancer have shared stories and gently reminded us that God will never leave us.

To all of you who have prayed, sent emails, brought meals, or just let us talk, know that you have been the hands, feet, and heart of God in my (our) valley of the shadow of death.

Cancer – the calm

Eleven years ago I experienced my first hurricane. I was traveling to Miami FL just as Katrina was coming ashore. This is the same storm that would later devastate the Gulf Coast region. First it had to cross over Florida. I remember clearly the landing. The pilot had informed us that it might be “bumpier than usual.” I have travelled a lot and this particular landing was the bumpiest I have ever experienced. Once the plane came to a stop at the end of the runway all of the passengers broke out in cheers. After disembarking I found my rental and drove south to Homestead. It was rainy and windy but I made it to my destination. Everyone was getting ready for a hurricane party. I still don’t understand the logic of hosting a party in a hurricane, but people in Florida do this kind of thing.

It is also important to note that Katrina was not a terribly strong hurricane at this point. As a matter of fact it may have been classified as a tropical depression. Regardless, it was impressive. At a certain point that evening, everything calmed down. The wind and the rain subsided. I thought the storm had passed. My more experienced hosts let me know that the eye was passing over. This was new to me. Calm in the middle of the storm.

In many ways this is where Rita and I find ourselves today. On Friday she went in for a MRI. The technicians collected the data and sent it on to be interpreted. They told us we probably wouldn’t hear anything before Monday or Tuesday. This weekend a winter storm rolled in to Colorado. This may delay hearing from the doctors.

In many ways this weekend has been calm. You could say deceptively calm. We have been “normal;” working, visiting and just being a couple. There are storm clouds on the horizon. We don’t know if it is going to be a tropical depression or a full blown hurricane. However in the middle of this journey a space of calm has emerged.

In Matthew 8 there is a story of Jesus sleeping in the middle of a storm. He found a space of rest when everyone was fearing for their lives. This weekend we have been thankful for this space; a place to rest before the storm.

Cancer – Surprise

In my work life I am an Executive Director. One of the key functions of my role is to eliminate surprises.  In many ways I am well suited for this. For example, I have never wanted a surprise party nor have I ever enjoyed participating in them. In my work life I manage people and budgets. In both cases surprises very rarely yield a positive outcome. This morning my wife met with her surgeon. I have met him a few times as well. He professional, smart, empathic, nice, and knows what he is doing. Both of us have come to trust him.

Today as he was reviewing the surgery results the word “surprised” was used.  At the outer margins of the tissue that was removed they found a pre-cancerous grouping of cells. They will need to be removed before any treatment can begin. Before they schedule surgery they want to do an MRI on both breasts to make sure there are no more surprises. If they find any masses it means additional biopsies. It means additional waiting to hear results and praying that any results come back benign.

We live in a world and culture that works hard to minimize risk. When problems arise we want clear solutions. This journey into cancer has become a stark reminder that not everything is predictable. There is not always a clear solution. And sometimes God is silent.

In sharing this journey we have heard from many of you. Your stories of unpredictability and surprise have been encouraging and pastoral, even in the middle of this storm. Rita’s and my faith is being tested. I have been mad at God and grateful for God’s presence in the same instant. I have wondered where God is and known God is right there beside us.

The writer to the Hebrews talks about faith being the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Somehow in all of the surprise, unpredictability, anger, and frustration, our faith remains.

Cancer – a curve in the road

My all-time favorite ride at Disneyland is Space Mountain. For those of you not familiar with this attraction it is a roller coaster. I like it because the majority of the ride takes place in complete darkness. It is a thrill ride full of unexpected twists, turns, and drops. In some ways Rita’s cancer is a bit like the ride, only we are not sure how or when this will come to an end. Last Thursday we received confirmation from the pathologist that they removed all the cancer. I cannot begin to tell you how happy this made us. There are still 6-8 weeks of radiation and 5 years of hormone replacement therapy. All of this felt like steps of precaution on the road to being declared cancer free.

Then Friday came. Rita’s surgeon called. The first part of his call reconfirmed everything we already knew. They removed all the cancer. Then he used the word “but.” I have come to strongly dislike that word. It is very rarely a harbinger of good news.

He started to talk about margins. There were concerns with the margins. I still don’t know what “margins” all refers to but, there’s that word, it wasn’t good news. They found some pre-cancerous cells near the surface of the skin. I was under the impression that radiation was supposed to take care of the “pre-cancerous stuff,” but the doctor started talking about removal of the cells. This sounded like more surgery. Then he went on to say he didn’t want to keep taking pieces. What does that mean?

All of this is testing our faith. And too be honest I am not interested in hearing about a lack of faith. I believe, that is not in doubt. However, I am frustrated. This has impacted how I have worshipped lately. I am tired of a worship experience only grounded in a God who always comes through for God’s people, if they just believe enough.

There are entire sections of Scripture dedicated to lament, sorrow, and frustration. God’s people are not always given simple answers. Positive thinking is not a cure-all. Last year at a conference I was introduced to the possibility of using lament in worship. From the stage they sang words that I am singing today:

I need to hear from you

I’m crying out

And through the pain we'll learn to trust in you

For reasons I do not understand God seems silent, but I am learning to worship in a new way.

Cancer – post surgery

Last Friday was the best and worst day. It was an Ecclesiastes 3 day. It was a day of fear and a day of hope. It was a day of darkness and light. I cried to God in anger and offered prayers of thanksgiving. It is amazing how our lives can change in an instant. Shortly after 4 PM last Friday the doctor called me into a private waiting room. I instantly went into worst case scenario mode. Why does he have to talk to me privately? In an instant my mood went from fear to joy. The doctors tested her lymph nodes and the results were negative for cancer. They removed two masses and are 95% sure they got everything. We still need to wait a week to get the final pathology, but everything is pointing in the right direction.

There are still 6-8 weeks of radiation and it will be 5 years before Rita can be declared cancer free. But the outlook is good.

The last couple of months has been an important reminder to our family. Quite simply we do not know what tomorrow will bring. Life can go from wonderful to a disaster in an instant. Matthew 5-7, Jesus’ sermon on the mountain, has always been an important passage for me. It has shaped how I understand and live out my faith. I do not think I ever fully understood the “do not worry” section in Matthew 6:25-34 until Rita was diagnosed with cancer. All I could think about was what the future might or might not bring. It became crystal clear that I could not control the future. One of the unexpected blessings of this diagnosis was a process of beginning to live in the moment.

Christmas was nothing short of perfect. Our boys came home and they weren’t boys anymore; they had grown into men. We talked and laughed around the table. When the boys went back to their homes Rita and I were better together. Things that may have caused tension in the past just didn’t seem quite as important. We went for hikes, drives, and meals together and managed to enjoy the moments.

I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. We still have a ways to go before this is behind us. This week I am beginning to thank God for the unexpected lessons.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” Matthew 6:34


This is not a topic I ever planned to blog about. Sometimes things happen that we do not plan for. Late last year my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Getting that phone call was not fun. To be honest I just didn’t expect it. Yes, they had called Rita back for further tests because something unexpected was spotted, but I just assumed the medical staff was being extra careful. They were being extra careful. I just didn’t expect the call. No, I expected a call, I just thought the news would be different. The news wasn’t different. There is no way to prepare yourself to hear that your wife has cancer. It simply sucks. In the weeks since we have heard a whole lot of positive news. It was caught early. The mass is small. There is no reason to believe that she won’t be cancer free by summer. But this isn’t what I hear. All I know is that my wife has cancer. And cancer is not a good thing.

There have also been some amazing points of light. Hearing the stories of cancer survivors has been a source of hope. Our church family that has surrounded us with prayer and love. My coworkers have consistently asked how we are doing while giving me space to be less than my best. Family members have reached out in all kinds of unique ways. Both of our boys have become “pastoral.” Our neighbors have cared for us in ways that say we are more than people who live next door to each other.

In a strange way my faith is growing and changing. I am furious with God for allowing this to happen. At the same time God is there in ways I have never experienced before. I am not a fan of the various ways that Romans 8:28 is sometimes used and abused, but I find myself clinging to these words: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”

At December’s DOOR National board meeting I quoted Tim McGraw’s song:

Let’s take a moment and celebrate our age

The ending of an era and the turning of a page

Now it’s time to focus on were we go from here

Lord have mercy on our next 30 years

My prayer is simple; I want another 30 years with my wife.