Hang around a church coffee hour, or even a gathering of friends, and pretty soon you’ll hear a term ripe with theological meaning.
Your father, mother, friend, colleague. The kid up the street. The young mom from work. The senator, the singer, the fourth grader who runs to keep up with friends. There are few walls this monster cannot overtake, and few lives that will go untouched from its wretched grasp.
It is humanity’s preexisting condition.
Life threatening disease of any kind tests the mettle of one’s faith, and cancer is particularly pernicious. If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are certainly many hollowed out souls in oncology wards. Every vein puncture and every scan are reminders that there is something living inside of you that should not be there. Living with hope becomes a daily struggle.
In response, we adopt military metaphors. Patients become warriors who plunge through the battlefield of disease, enlisting medical teams. Surgeons invade like Marines, hunting down the enemy and identifying its base of operations. Artillery support is provided by chemotherapy aimed at the enemy’s hiding places. Radiation bombs target cells with precision. A body at war with cancer bears remarkable resemblance to a bloodied battlefield.
I’ve watch as cancer took the lives of my father and mother. Mom was blessed by the gift of years – though not spared from the difficulties of pain and disease. Dad, on the other hand, died at 65. Their lives remind me of the blessing that each moment of life holds.
Their faith has also taught me that facing cancer requires more than just the military metaphor. Cancer or any malicious disease is indeed a battle. But it can also be described as living in a foreign land, a place we had not planned on going but nonetheless have been sent. Maybe a wilderness place, where like the Israelites we wander and are tested. A place where we yearn for God, and a place where – surprise of all surprises – we are nourished fed by God in spite of our hostile surroundings. To borrow Belden Lane’s imagery, cancer is one of the fierce landscapes of life.
But we never are completely alone in those lonely places. More than once, I heard my mother say what a gift her church had been to her first while losing my father to cancer and second during her own struggles with the disease. And I have seen that happen countless times as a pastor.
It is that fierce landscape that theologian and stage VI cancer patient Deanna A. Thompson inhabits. In her book Hoping For More, Thompson describes how cancer revealed to her the importance of the universal body of Christ:
I have to admit that in life before cancer, I hadn’t given the church universal much thought. I could – and would – extol the virtues of of participation in local communities of faith. I agree with theologians who say that the church is really being the church when it is present with those who suffer… While my defense of the value of the local church used to come primarily from watching congregations bring Christ’s love and care to others in need, I know have become a recipient of the church being the church in an intimately personal way… To be accompanied by the church on this journey reassured me that we weren’t walking alone. Their hands and feet became the hands and feet of Christ. (Thompson, Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith and Accepting Grace, p. 56.)
Here’s the promise we can offer to those facing cancer: you do not need to enter that place alone.