It's hard to look back to when I was afraid of my discernment committee rejecting my United Church candidacy. I was, after all, seeking approval to leave a teaching career that I enjoyed and had felt called to for a time. Always, in the back of my mind, was ending my working years with a period of ministry that would draw on a different set of gifts and provide different challenges.
In June 2005, before a self-funded leave of absence to study full-time, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Tragic? Yes. Terminal? Not yet. Even from within the hardships of cancer, everything seemed to work out. My employer was kind enough to cancel the leave; I could live comfortably on insurance. The cancer treatment worked and, finally, I was in remission. I applied for a new leave of absence and found everyone to be co-operative and helpful again. I was ready to start a full-time semester, believing that perhaps dealing with cancer was a lesson to deepen my ministry, to sharpen my ability to help people seek meaning in their own suffering.
Then, before my studies began, came the recurrence, a terminal diagnosis this time. What kind of call is this? Am I mis-hearing? Does God make crank calls? "[F]or he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matt. 5:45)
I'm not called to ordained ministry. I'm called to die.
I won't pretend not to be angry. Part of me wants to know why, if I'm willing to dedicate my life to serving God as an ordained minister, I shouldn't be allowed to live in return. God obviously isn't a bargain-maker, at least not one making the bargains that I want to hear.
I won't pretend not to feel frightened. What lies on the other side? What if we're completely wrong? What if I have messed up so badly that I'm in big trouble? What if it's just over when I close my eyes for the last time?
And I won't pretend to not feel abandoned by God at times. I have cried a lot of tears into what feels like complete emptiness, and cried a lot of tears accompanied by the psalms because I can drag no words out of my own emptiness: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalms 22: 1)
I don't remember exactly how my feelings of abandonment by God turned around, when I felt the presence of God and Jesus once again. The absence was painful beyond belief, certainly worse than anything that cancer can produce physically.
Part of the move was a change in my attitude -- from, "Where is God? Why have you forsaken me?" to, "Perhaps it's my job to walk with Christ, walk the path of the cross."
I had the good fortune to visit the Holy Land during my period of remission. It was one of those projects on life's agenda that uncertainty caused us to move forward. We walked the Via Dolorosa, the Path of Sorrow, and I was still weak from the first cancer treatment so I really did suffer a little along the way. Still, it was a satisfying pilgrimage, with regular chapel stops along the way to rest and pray. Maybe we are called to walk with Christ occasionally on his Via Dolorosa, to walk the Way of the Cross with our Lord and Redeemer.
How often do we abandon him? How often do we ignore the pain and suffering and look to Jesus as the ultimate gift-giver? We want the rewards but we don't want to pay the price. We want our religion to comfort us, but giving up our own time, energy or creature comforts is just too much trouble.
Christ on Golgotha is about the loneliest figure in the world. Even the bandit next to him is asking for a favour: "Jesus, remember me in your kingdom." The other derides him. What do we do to walk with Jesus along this path?
Ours is not a religion of purely spiritual, ethereal life, but includes the reality of our created-ness, our physicality -- real life, from birth, through adulthood and work, and to death. And through death to life after death, we have a natural progression, a physical progression, a spiritual progression, part of the system that we've been created in.
We die. Our hope and our promise is that we live again. We have no reason not to believe it. We have no reason not to find comfort and joy in the promise and in the example of Jesus. We have no reason not to look forward to seeing our Lord and God face-to-face.
But if one is called to die, what can that mean? Perhaps the most mundane thing is the clear, sharp focus that impending death provides. I see what I'm going to miss: family, friends, future plans, the garden, the cat, even work. All are more profound, more beautiful. Petty complaints fall away when compared to not being able to complain. Babies are more miraculous, hugs are warmer and the world a more perfect place. Being called to die makes everyone else a minister.
People from work visit and they sing, pray, bring babies, bring books, music, flowers, communion, hugs, laughter and tears. They solve my problems and help me finish my projects. I feel some days like the gift of life itself is being brought to my door, and it is life framed into perfect works of art. The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
There is also the endless physical care that comes to consume the lives of family members, ministering to the body in its increasing helplessness. It's hard, unpredictable and heartbreaking work. But people come through, mining personal resources of strength and compassion they hadn't known before.
There is Christian, my husband (yes, really), who does it all. When I'm hungry, he gives me food; thirsty, he gives me drink. As I become a stranger through illness, he welcomes me; when I'm naked, he clothes me; when I'm sick, he takes care of me; when in the prison of my despair, he visits me. (Matt. 25: 35-8) He literally washes my feet: "Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash.... " (John 13: 5) "For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you." (John 13: 15)
There is a friend who for months brings meals to make our lives simpler, visiting, driving, accompanying me to endless appointments, bringing others to the hospital and home, being there as a friend and a follower of Christ, a pillar of support. A friend, who sits for half a day at my side just to witness my pain. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was sick and you took care of me." (Matt. 25: 35-36) "[J]ust as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matt. 25: 40)
Then there is Janet, finishing my quilt, and having quilting done for me so I can finish a quilt as a gift for my husband and for myself. She shops and plans and shares together her expertise and our common love for quilting, blessing me with a unique gift that speaks of who she is at the core of her being. "Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates." (Proverbs 31: 31)
Jo'Ann, blessed with a voice, sings with and for me. She shares our favourite songs, bringing grace and joy into my home. She also has the ability to pray aloud for others, bringing us to tears of joy and despair in our worship together. "Could you not stay awake and pray with me one hour?" (Matt. 26: 50)
There is Joyce, who for 18 months kept people at work informed about my health, let people know when to call or visit when I was hospitalized, when I was home. She is also willing to talk of death and offers the gift of openness and honesty, a sharing of her own journey through the death of her mother. Joyce's mother loved the mandolin and played it a lot, sharing it with her daughters. I didn't know that, but I was cross-stitching a mandolin Christmas ornament and felt drawn to give it to Joyce. Why did that happen? "Praise him with lute and harp." (Psalm 150: 3b)
Also there is Susan, spending a week at my bed in the hospital and going out to be my hands and feet. She spent time finding my unfinished craft projects and preparing materials for me to work on in the hospital -- those endlessly long days between the periods of too much pain to function and functioning well enough to leave for home. Susan, running around an unfamiliar city, Christmas shopping and seeking out craft materials. Driving 10-hour round trips to spend a weekend every month with me. Ministering to my needs with untold devotion. "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." (1Cor 12: 27)
We can face death knowing that it is part of creation, a path that we all take eventually. If death were faced more honestly, we might have time to put its lessons into practice during the long stretch that most of us enjoy on the earth. Even though ill, I am able to minister to people -- if nothing seems left, one can always pray "thanks" for the pleasures we have received. We can pray for the ones who suffer around us.
We live faithfully with the belief of Christ's conquering death once and for all, at least nominally, but we fear death and pretend that we won't die; we pretend that it can be postponed. We often won't even speak the word. Instead, we "pass on" or talk about "if something ever happens to Mom." Yet each one of us is going to die. Some of us have a better idea about when.
Why do I have to suffer and die? I have asked -- and whined and complained and begged for relief and, yes, cursed. But I think it's simply part of the condition of being created.
We walk with Jesus in life, in death and in life beyond death. It's a fallen world. It comes with imperfection and pain and suffering. We are part of it. But it will ultimately be redeemed. We are in a covenant relationship with a loving God. We will die into God, into Christ. What are we afraid of? Why can we not walk faithfully and fearlessly into death with Christ?
I am not called to ordained ministry. But I am called to ministry. Ministry for me is still rich with the promises of worldly pleasures -- sunshine and quilts, in particular. It rings with stories of people blessed with gifts that echo the way of our Lord. It runs with the precious blood of those willing to share my suffering and provide the care I need. It turns everyone else into ministers. And I think the world is called to look honestly and faithfully at the fact that death is part of creation and we are all called down that road. *
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