When Faith and Cancer Collide

Hope and Community

by Bill Holmes

I am focused on living with cancer, not dying from it. I choose as my metaphor “negotiating” with cancer, not battling it, as I know that there is great power in rapidly dividing cells. Cure may not come, but I will live or die as a whole person while giving thanks to the God of the Resurrection. —Bill Holmes, Journal, February 7, 2010

In my lifetime I have been the messenger announcing the presence of cancer, the recipient of the cancer pronouncement, and the one who sits at the cancer patient’s bedside as pastor and chaplain. I hope that what I share here will resonate with fellow travelers.

Awaking from surgery, I surveyed the post-op area in a new way. I had been there many times before to do neurological assessments or simply be present for one who has just received bad news. Now it was my turn to lie in the hospital bed and hear, “You do indeed have cancer. In fact, you have two primaries.” My first response was more tears than I knew possible, as I hid my face under my pillow for what seemed forever.

I confess that at first I was too stunned to ask intelligent questions. I spent a good deal of time staring into space as nothingness filled my awareness. Soon I was at my default setting of intellectualizing, reviewing the world’s literature, and searching the National Library of Medicine archives. Before long the psalms of lament (13, 35, 86) that I had come to know and love came to walk with me. The psalmist must have written from the foxholes of life, from the O.R. recovery area, from the cancer ward, from the radiation therapy waiting room, from the oncologist’s office, and from the bedside of a dying loved one.

Walter Brueggemann says the psalmist cries out to God because he is experiencing “disorientation.” When we face the greatest threats to our lives, we may, as did Jesus on the cross, echo the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In like manner we may also be so overwhelmed and frightened that we say, “Where is God? Has God abandoned me? Has God done a disappearing act just as the enemy, cancer, is at the door?”

Being so “disoriented” that we question God is not something we readily claim. We tend to forget that our God is the God of the difficult times in our lives as well as the good. We Christians are unrelenting in our affirmation of “orientation” as reflected in our hymns and choruses. Most of the time we act as though we know where we are and where God is. Such may come from the wishful optimism of our culture more than from faith in God. Subsequently, when the threat of cancer arises, our faith, the foundation of our hope, is challenged, as we see the possibility of death. The reality of the threat of no longer being here as a living, breathing person, stands in contradiction to our hope, even threatens our hope.

It is, however, an act of faith to cry out in protest to God. Our lament, even our outrage, is the beginning of a new journey through the darkest of times. Like the writer of Psalm 13, we wait in the darkness of the threat of death, in “disorientation,” until we sense, hear, or feel a response from God. The response may not be the answer to all that is happening, but it brings us to a time of new orientation in which we, in faith, reconsider all of life and set new priorities while giving thanks and praising God that we have not yet been overcome by the enemy, cancer.

So often, when we speak of hope, we are thinking of “clinical hope,” hope based on what medicine may do for us. After all, we are about to trust the world of medicine to save us from the rapidly multiplying cells that we call “cancer.” But what is the ultimate source of our hope as Christians? Is it not a hope that arises from our faith in God as revealed in the story of the crucified and resurrected Jesus? The very foundation of Christianity has been the narrative of a God who comes to share in the experience of suffering and abandonment. Without hope in the crucified and resurrected Jesus “faith falls to pieces” (Jürgen Moltmann).

The hope that comes to us through faith transforms our present as well as our future. Living in the present hope means seeing the reality of the “now” while looking to the future reality, dealing with the threat of the “now” and being present to it while looking forward to God’s future. Faith without such a hope risks becoming something other than Christian faith, and hope without faith in the living God risks becoming nothing more than optimism. As Christians, we certainly hope that modern medicine can cure our cancer, palliate our pain, and give us more meaningful days, but we find our ultimate hope in God’s mysterious gift, Jesus Christ.

Our hope can be diminished due to a lack of community. In our society there is a great emphasis on individualism. Even in the church we hear much about “my personal relationship to Jesus,” but relatively little about community building as part of out faith journey. Faith is meant to be lived in community with others of faith. It is from that community that we come to meaning and understanding of our own vulnerable condition. Recall that Jesus surrounded himself with others, first the Twelve, then all who would come. He repeatedly called them to gather around the table to share a meal, for it is there in the intimate face to face time of sharing stories that both the spirit and the body are nourished and intimacy is nurtured. Yet we are prone see faith as just between the individual and God, so we fail to build community.

The community of the cancer sufferer may also become disoriented. There is upheaval in all areas of life. When the diagnosis comes family and friends may rally around for a time, but, then, as the treatment starts and the routine sets in, support may lessen. It is not out of lack of concern or love. Some may feel that they don’t know what to say or do. At times the one suffering withdraws from community, as there is a need for solitude and reflection.

Finally, as we come together as a community of faith to render support, we as family, caregivers, pastors, chaplains, and physicians would do well to carefully discern when it is time to be present and when it is best to take our leave. We must be sensitive to spiritual needs and theological understandings that may not match ours. Above all know that our well-intended sayings, even when they may reflect a scripture passage, carry the possibility of destroying faith and community. The spouse of a critically ill woman informed that he would have nothing to do with a religion that says, “He is in a better place.” Such were the words he heard from his pastor when their eight-year-old son died from leukemia 25 years earlier. He never returned to church.

It is not surprising that the most requested song at our hospital is Amazing Grace. It is song of disorientation and new orientation, being lost and being found. Even those who cannot recite a theological definition of grace have come to know first hand what grace means, as they have experienced horrible loss and fear followed by a strange inward assurance that somehow, in some mysterious way, God is touching their lives. Certainty about what is happening and why is not the issue. Even in the midst of recovery from surgery, the side effects of chemotherapy, the clinic and hospital visits, and the anguish of not knowing, we can and do find ourselves saying with the psalmist, “”Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? … I come to the end—I am still with you” (Psalm 139:7–18).


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