Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Below is the sermon I preached in my first Sunday back in the pulpit for 8 months. Retelling the story of Naaman's healing from 2 Kings 5 gave me the opportunity to reflect more deeply on my own journey of healing--and the tables around which I hope it makes a difference. 
As Naaman climbed onto the examining table, he put up a brave front. But inside, he was a mess.  The king’s own physicians were taking a look at his case, and today they would give him their diagnosis.  He wasn’t sure how it could happen.  To him.  He’d started wondering when the numbness in his fingers made him keep spilling his wine at meals.  He started worrying when he’d noticed the white blotches on his skin.  

The doctor came in as some doctors do--with as much self-importance as any army general.  He strode into the small room and brought his professionally distant eyes to rest on the General.  He spoke in short staccato sentences, like camels sprinting.

He had conferred with his colleagues about Naaman’s case.  Their conclusions were unanimous.  It was leprosy.  The doctor went on for a brief time about the symptoms and the pattern Naaman could expect them to progress...and then, as if he'd just given Naaman the weekend weather forecast, he stifled a yawn and walked from the room. Naaman slipped down from the table and did his best to get dressed again. The numbness in his fingers was nothing now compared with the dullness of his mind, trying to comprehend the diagnosis--the death sentence--he'd just received.  From now on, he knew, nothing was ever going to be the same.  

Naaman shuffled out of the doctor's office and made his way home. He saw the table his wife had already set for the evening meal. The flowers she'd put at the center of the table had petals like a baby’s skin.  Their beauty seemed to mock him.  Like them, he'd once been full of life and color...as he thought of how old and withered he was now, he cursed the flowers: "you'll be shriveled soon enough!" he hissed, knocking over the vase and stomping out the front door. As the door slammed shut, it occurred to him that he'd never eat another meal around that table. The thought cut his mind like a blade, and he suddenly wished his mind would go numb again.

Somehow in some military campaign or other, as he had collected the spoils of war, Naaman had also picked up the disease that made even battle-hardened warriors shrink in horror. He wondered which of his enemies may have avenged their defeat by placing the seeds of the disease on his skin...One thing was sure: from now on, nothing about his life was ever going to be the same.

As Naaman made his way to the palace, a servant girl in his house raced to Naaman's wife Amira.  She described what had happened upon the General's brief return home. "By Rimmon!" Amira exclaimed, "it must be leprosy. Oh, that the gods would spare him such a terrible fate!”

The girl's eyes widened and she exclaimed: “If only the general could go to my land, there the prophet could heal him.”

“Who is this prophet?” Amira demanded.  She was desperate to save her husband, even if it meant pursuing some crazy slave girl’s story.  As the young girl described the acts of healing she’d seen at the hands of a man she called Elisha, Amira grew more and more convinced it was worth a try.

So Amira dispatched another servant to fetch the General with the news.  Hope wasn’t lost.  There was reason to believe that the answers to their prayers lay in Israel.  Even as she sent the servant to get her husband, Amira suspected one thing for sure: from this point on, nothing about their life would ever be the same.

Meanwhile, the General had entered the palace with his usual air of dignity.  Suddenly, however, as he approached the king’s council room, Naaman found himself facing four soldiers.  They were blocking his passage to the king.  Naaman could see beyond them to the table where other senior officers were conferring quietly with the king.  As the highest ranking officer in the land, for years Naaman’s place had been at the king’s right hand, but to his alarm he saw that in his place sat his main rival, Umar.  Umar seemed to be in the middle of telling a joke, and had his hand resting gently on the king’s arm.  

It suddenly dawned on Naaman.  He had gone to the king’s own physicians.  They would have notified the king of the diagnosis as soon as it was confirmed.  Naaman couldn’t believe it.  Was he under arrest? Was he being ushered home, or somewhere else? As the guards ushered him away, he watched the king’s council table fade from his view. It was the place he’d sat for all these years, the place where he’d once held such authority.  From now on, Naaman realized again, nothing about his life was ever going to be the same.

At that moment the servant Amira had sent came running breathlessly toward the group.  “Master, the lady of the house says you must go to Israel, for the cure for your condition exists there.”

Without hearing another word, Naaman shouted over his shoulder to the king, “Sire, the cure!  It’s in Israel!”

The king, who had already been wrestling with his conscience for kicking Naaman so abruptly to the curb, murmured instructions to one of his money men. “Give him what he needs.”  

Naaman, sensing his opportunity, took charge: “I shall go immediately to the nation of Israel and find where they are hiding this cure.  If they won’t reveal it for money, I’ll use whatever means I must!”

With such a small traveling party, the journey to Israel didn’t take long.  That was good.  Because this time his mission was personal.  Find the cure.  Whatever it took.  If he could just accomplish his mission, he was sure that nothing about his suddenly helter-skelter life would ever be the same.  

The chariots pulled up outside the modest mud dwelling where the king of Israel lived.  Naaman shook his head at the plainness of this king’s home.  How in the world a back-water crew like these Hebrews had found a cure for leprosy was beyond him.  He was reminded of the time early in his military career when he’d found a bag of jewels as he was plundering a little fishing town called Joppa.  He’d taken over castles that had less loot than that little fisherman’s hut.  Where the jewels had come from he never knew.  But a few well placed “offerings” of those Joppa Jewels had certainly gone a long way toward helping Naaman climb the military ladder.  Yes, the cure to his leprosy being in Israel was like finding jewels in Joppa.

Naaman pulled up his chariot at the door of the palace and nodded at the courier who rode with him.  The courier dismounted from the chariot and carried the king’s letter to the door of the palace.

After 20 minutes of waiting in the intense sunshine, Naaman decided to seize the initiative.  Letters are nice, he thought, but sometimes the only language someone like Joram understands is the kind delivered at the end of a cudgel.  

As Naaman entered the palace, king Joram was sitting at the foot of his own throne.  His clothes were in tatters.  The letter from the King of Syria was on the floor a few feet away, where Joram had dropped it.  Joram was howling hysterically, looking toward the heavens and shouting in the strange, percussive tongue of the Hebrews.  

“What’s the matter with him?!” Naaman demanded.  One of Joram’s advisers stepped reluctantly forward.  He says "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."

“So much for the negotiating table,” Naaman thought.  And he lunged toward the groveling king. He grabbed the king’s hair and pulled him to his feet.  “If it’s a quarrel you want, it’s a quarrel you’ll get! I need the cure to this blasted disease! I know you have it! I won’t leave until I get it!”

The king folded up like a tent flap, leaving Naaman holding him off the ground by his hair.  If Naaman could not prevail upon this poor fool, if he could not persuade him to give him what he needed, Naaman realized that the rest of his party would simply leave Israel without him.  He would then be not only a man without a rank, he would be a man without a country.  As the king writhed around like a fish on the end of a line, Naaman realized that with or without a cure, nothing in his life was ever going to be the same.

In the midst of the confusion, a voice cried out.  It was a high, thin voice, the voice of a child.  “The prophet says ‘why, king, have you torn your robes? let the General come to me so that he may know there is a prophet in Israel.’” Naaman let go of the king, who landed on the floor with a dull thud.  

Within minutes, Naaman and his delegation were kicking up dust as they sped their horses and chariots toward the prophet’s home.  

If Israel’s king slept in a humble palace, their prophet stayed in an outright shack.  Naaman halfway thought the ramshackle structure may fall to the ground from the vibration of the horse’s hooves.

Before he could send anyone inside, a young boy emerged from the shanty and declared: The prophet says, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean."

It was late in the day, and Naaman was feeling the cure slip from his grasp like sand out of a clenched fist. He couldn’t figure out for the life of him how to deal with these Hebrews. When all he had to do was defeat them in battle, he was fine, but without knowing precisely what he was looking for, he now felt helpless.  For the first time since his reprieve in the palace that morning, Naaman began to lose hope. "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!  Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?"

He rode furiously in the direction of a grove of trees a quarter mile back. He needed some time to pull himself together.  If he couldn’t think of anything else to do, he could at least come back in the morning and avenge this humiliation.  He’d show the whole of Israel their prophet--at the end of his sword.

The last traces of light remained in the sky when the servants finally got their tent and table assembled.  They had been mostly quiet since Naaman stormed off, speaking only enough to get their tasks accomplished.  They knew and Naaman knew that if no cure were found, their orders were to abandon the general and return to the palace to resume their duties.  

As they began to eat their evening meal around the table, they were shocked to see Naaman entering the servant’s tent. He not only came in, but he settled himself down at their table. The servants all stole glances at one another.  What was going on that this mighty man had taken a place at the servant’s table? It was Hasim, the youngest of their number, who first spoke.
"Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?"

It was half question, half command.  The young servant must have known the risk of speaking in such a way to the famously hot-headed General.  But he figured they’d all be leaving the old man in this god-forsaken place tomorrow anyway, and he might as well try to help the guy while he could.   

As abruptly as he’d come in, Naaman stood up to leave.  He didn’t say a word to the kid who’d spoken up.  He didn’t acknowledge anyone, except to murmur something cryptic about jewels from Joppa.  

The general made a beeline for the muddy river. He’d determined that if he didn’t come out clean, he’d simply not come out. The murky waters of the Jordan would be the battleground where Naaman was finally defeated.   

He sloshed around in the half light of dusk, sprinkling himself seven times as the prophet had instructed.  He looked around, wondering if anything was happening. He didn’t feel any different.  But the servants on the shore were sure looking at him differently.  They stared, speechless.  Their master’s skin was smooth and without blemish. Like he was young again.  Salvation had indeed been found in Israel.  

Naaman knew, of course, that after a sickness of such magnitude and a healing so miraculous, nothing in his life would ever be the same.

As you all know by now, this experience caused Naaman to become a believer in Israel’s God.  It was a commitment that affected every part of his life.  
His new faith brought him encouragement whenever he had to climb back onto the doctor’s table--though he occasionally still got butterflies when the doctor ordered extra tests, he found praying to Yahweh to be a terrific comfort. Even so, he never did go back to the king’s physician.

His new faith brought him peace as he sat at his employer’s table--realizing that he didn’t have to compete with Umar, but could gradually develop a relationship of trust with him instead. Naaman no longer insisted on sitting at the king’s right hand during every meeting, and soon the privilege of that spot was diminished, while the cooperation around the table was greatly improved.  

Naaman’s new faith even affected his approach on the occasions he had to sit at the negotiating table--he found himself listening more and speaking less.  He found he did not lose his temper as frequently or resort to name-calling so quickly (he still had a problem with this last one--calling people names had been a talent of his for ages, and even with a new faith and a new lease on life, there are certain things it’s just hard to give up!)

The other place his new faith was on display was at the servant’s table.  It wasn’t a place he’d have been caught dead before his conversion, but after living with Yahweh for a while, Naaman found himself sitting at the servant’s table more often, hearing what they had to say, coming to understand how they saw the world, occasionally even helping them with some of the household tasks.  

But nowhere was Naaman’s faith more clear than at his family table.  

It was there, as they prayed in the name of Yahweh, that Naaman recognized every meal and every moment as a jewel, like the priceless collection he’d found in Joppa so long ago. He came to see the table where he broke bread with his family as a table of grace.  Full of the bread of heavenly benediction. With a cup to quench their deepest thirst.  It was in the moments around that table, taking bread and cup together, that Naaman felt most fully restored. As if Yahweh were actually present with them, celebrating their restoration as the whole, holy, family of God.

What to Do with a Life Restored?

The piece below was originally written for the July 5, 2013 edition of the Spartanburg Herald Journal--two days before my first Sunday back at worship since October 2012.
A year ago, my family and I moved to Spartanburg for me to become the pastor of St. James United Methodist Church.  The move was complicated by a significant detail: I was in the middle of chemotherapy for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  Those of you who have read my sporadic columns in this paper know that within 3 weeks of concluding that very promising treatment, my cancer had returned.  And in the descriptive words of my physician, its return was “explosive.”  
Thus began the long, difficult, faith-testing process of a bone marrow transplant.  There were three more rounds of chemo, a radioactive isotope treatment that made me literally untouchable for a week, and a five-day intensive chemo treatment that prepared my body to receive bone marrow cells from someone I didn’t even know.
Then, believe it or not, came the hard part.  Months in Charleston, away from our children and church family--months that veered between harrowing hospitalizations and tedious timekilling.  Miraculously, a few weeks ago, I came home, and two months ahead of schedule!  Equally as miraculous, this Sunday will be the first time since October that I have been able to lead worship and preach for my wonderful congregation.  
As it happens, one of the Scripture lessons assigned for this Sunday is a story from 2 Kings about the healing of a Syrian general named Naaman.  I won’t offer you my entire Sunday message here.  But I would like to mention one highlight. After the prophet Elisha heals Naaman, he sends him away without accepting any payment.  Naaman thus leaves town with the same stuff on his chariot that he showed up with.  (Most of it, in fact, was probably captured from Israel and other defeated countries before it came into Naaman’s possession--but that’s an angle for another day!)
Today’s point is that in this ancient tale about a foreigner being healed, we encounter a startling example of grace.  Absolutely nothing is asked of Naaman in return for his healing.  In fact, aside from his unprompted promise to worship Yahweh (on the down-low, of course), nothing changes about Naaman.  He’s returning to the same job--with the same duties, the same boss, the same routine. He’s returning to his same wife and family.  His debit card is still in his wallet (or at least his treasure is still in his chariot).  In this story, there is not a thing Naaman is asked to offer or sacrifice in return for his miraculous healing. He simply washes and is clean.  
We don’t know the rest of Naaman’s story.  We don’t know if he lived his life pretty much like he had before.  We don’t know if he went on to write a newspaper column about the experience. We don’t know if he became a vegan and moved to California.  We don’t even know if he maintained his new faith in Yahweh.  What we do know is that of all the people who had leprosy, the prophet--and God--chose to heal an unlikely candidate.  Someone who had fought against and defeated God’s people.  Someone who had profited from Israel’s collapse.  Someone who had devoted his entire adult life to a different nation and a different god.  
As I enter back into what some may refer to as “normal” life, it doesn’t escape me that I have also been an unlikely candidate for healing. I know people far more holy or moral or talented who haven’t survived cancer. But the fact is, at least for now, I have been healed.  The same gracious, kind, surprising God who chose to heal a pagan military officer back then has chosen to spare this sometimes unholy Methodist preacher.  I now face the questions Naaman faced: What now?  What to do with a life restored?  How do you live when you’re already in extra innings?  (OK, maybe Naaman didn’t think of it as extra innings, but work with me here!)
I don’t yet know the answers for myself any more than I know how Naaman answered them. But I can tell you this: I hope God grants me the grace to respond to others in need with as much tenderloving kindness as I myself have received. The grace to offer care to the St. James congregation, which has cared for me and my family extravagantly and sacrificially.  The grace to offer thanks to the countless people near and far who have supported me, asking nothing in return.  And the grace to open my arms wide to embrace every person I meet--the “deserving” and “undeserving” alike, offering them that which comes from God alone, no strings 
What would your answers to Naaman’s questions be?
Chris Barrett

Friday, March 8, 2013

Digging and Dunging

Luke 13:6-9 (KJV)

He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.

So there’s this guy, he has had this land w/ fig trees on it for as long as he can remember, acquired as a sweetener in some big land deal years ago...

And after years of benign neglect, season after season when the fruitfulness of the fig trees didn’t make a bit of difference to his bottom line, this guy is suddenly facing a financial crunch.

And so, for this guy, the fig trees go from afterthoughts to scapegoats.  Take note: this guy is so frustrated with his own fruitlessness that he begins to obsess over the fig tree.    

“Look,” this guy says to the vinedresser, who hasn’t seen him in years:: “I’ve got to start getting some return on this land. And if these lousy plants won’t produce, then why in the world are we letting them take up space?!  Go ahead, cut it down, and let’s get something profitable going on this little patch.”

“Master,” counseled the vinedresser, “like I told you when we planted these figs, patience is necessary with this variety.  Give me one more season.  A little digging, a little dunging, and this fig vine will produce the sweetest, most succulent fruit you’ve ever tasted.  All it needs is a little help.  Besides, anything you try to plant after ripping this up will take years to bear fruit.  Why not give it one more season?”

The grumpy owner, reluctantly seeing his vinedresser’s point, walks away abruptly, and trails these words behind him, “One more season, but if your digging and dunging don’t work, that’s it for this vine.”

We can be impatient and unwise “masters” of our own lives.  Especially when crises come.  In a crisis, we can lurch from one area of our lives to another, seeking instant remedies to deep-rooted problems.  Like the impetuous master Jesus tells us about, we need a vinedresser to remind us how deceptive our instincts can be--especially when we’re in crisis mode.  

For it is in crisis times that I find myself tugging at the roots of my devotional time, mumbling quick prayers at a meal and skipping Scripture study completely.  It is during crises that I yank mercilessly against my body’s limits, adding coffee and subtracting exercise. It is during crises that I neglect courtesies to others that might otherwise convey hospitality and kindness.  In other words, like the foolish master in Jesus’ story, I can be so hasty in my desire to do something about whatever predicament I’m facing that I don’t acknowledge or allow for the quiet work of growth God has already begun.  And so I uproot shoots that God has nurtured in or around me.  

This tendency to uproot God’s work in favor of feeding our own insecurities has become clearer to me during my extended convalescence after a bone marrow transplant.  I’ve always mouthed the ministry motto: Don’t just do something, sit there!  Living into that slogan, allowing space and time for God to work on the crises around me, has proven harder than reciting it.  But arresting the urge to “fix” things is often a matter of learning to wait.  Waiting for prayers to be answered.  Waiting for a friend who will listen and offer wise counsel.  Waiting for the Holy Spirit to act when my actions would all be based on my anxious need not to sit there, but to DO SOMETHING!  

Part of the reason, I believe, for our tendency to “jump in” and do something, is that in our culture, that’s what heroes do.  Heroes are brave and aggressive and endowed with gifts that shine all the brighter in times of duress.  But coming to terms with our weakness--with our inability to win every showdown, to achieve every goal, to overcome every obstacle--is as much a part of the life of faith as learning to “get our hands dirty.”

Learning to sit, wait, and receive can be the most challenging spiritual discipline there is because it removes the agency from our own hands and places it squarely in the hands of Another.  And as we relinquish our own grip on this or that fig plant, which we would just as soon pull out of the ground, the bottom line question is: do we trust the vinedresser to work while we wait?  Do we trust the One who has promised to dig and dung our lives into fruitfulness?    (This is another way of asking--does God really think these matters in my life are worth digging around in dung?!) And finally, can we relinquish our impulse to take charge in order to hear the vinedresser’s counsel: let it alone and leave it in my care.  If another season passes, and there’s no fruit, it’s yours.  Until then, leave it to me.

It is said that Martin Luther would pray 2 hours each morning before engaging the busy-ness of his day.  On a very busy day, however, Luther would pray for 3 hours in the morning instead.  

So I am trying to make way for the cultivation of that kind of patience, trusting heaven’s scale to discern both when I need to wait and for how long.  I strain some days to hear the counsel of the vinedresser, and some days I confess I ignore it altogether.  But today, reading this story, I trust that the vinedresser’s digging and dunging is the only way any of my fields can bear fruit that lasts.  

PS  For those of you who know me well, if you see me tugging at something I’ve identified as a big problem in my life, tap me on the shoulder and ask if I’ve talked it over with the vinedresser.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Emerging from Fog

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, "Can you see anything?"  And the man looked up and said, "I can see people, but they look like trees, walking." Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
-Mark 8:22-26

The past few weeks I’ve felt like the blind man after Jesus’ first laying-on-of-hands.  I’ve seen what the blind man saw: a blurry, confusing, facsimile of life.  For the blind man, that meant seeing people who, in his words “looked like trees.”  

For me, the first stage of holy healing has been equally blurry.  In the nearly three weeks since my bone marrow transplant, I, like the blind man before me, have been led away from the crowds, including the friends and family who have hoped most fervently for my healing. Like the blind man, I have strained and squinted and stared, trying to see the world as the Son of God intends for me to see it.  

In this blurry time, I’ve blinked through tears to see masked people wearing plastic blue aprons, taking their turns at helping me along the hard road of healing.  I have fuzzy memories of doctors prodding my chest and belly, listening to my lungs and my bowel sounds, flooding me with questions about how I’m feeling and what my bowel movements are like and what number (1-10) I would assign to the pain.  I have foggy recollections of nurses giving way to new nurses, shift after shift, hooking up more IV bags than I can count.  

I remember with blessed indistinctness the moments the pneumonia had me groaning and writhing in the bed, begging for someone to take away the pain.  The pain was a 9+ for a few hours, finally giving way to the pain meds that the doctors kept having to bump up and up and up some more.  In fact, just this morning our wonderful nurse practitioner laughingly recalled me praying a prayer of thanksgiving for narcotics!  (A prayer, incidentally, I have only the vaguest memory of praying!) 

When there hasn’t been high drama, there has been an incessant sameness to the days.  Vitals, Rounds, Blood Tests, Reruns on TV.  All of the routine has only increased the blur factor. But all the while, I am convinced that like the blind man before me, a faithful Companion has not only waited with me for clarity to come, but worked actively to help bring it about.  

In the last few days, my temperatures have begun to settle and the fog has begun to lift.  I remember with startling clarity the moment in the predawn dark when the nurse entered my room to announce that my neutrophils (immune cells) had reached the magic number of 500--engraftment had almost certainly begun! In the days since, that number has climbed beyond 1000, and my discharge from the hospital is now imminent.  

And like the blind man before me, I feel the hands of a Healer, hands which have refused to release me in the semi-darkness of confusion.  Instead, the Healer has held me until clarity has come.  And as I depart this place, like the blind man before me, I know that the healing I have received may only be for a time--but what a glorious time!! I now see the road before me as I’ve never seen it, as a place where even deeply needy bodies and souls like mine receive another ways to walk, and the light necessary to walk it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Great Cloud of Witnesses

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:1-2

I have always considered this passage from Hebrews to be comforting--the assurance of heavenly company during our earthly trials, the promise that faithful people who have run their races and now rest from their labors are presently being attentive and sympathetic to us as we run ours.  I have thought there was no better place to read this passage than a place like Duke Chapel, where the images of many of the witnesses are visible--in stone carvings, in colored glass, in rich tapestries.  The silent witnesses stared down at me and my open Bible, the Scripture writer asking me to believe that we undergo no trial alone.

The moments of deep contemplation in a space as holy and grand as Duke Chapel have been for me a touchstone in my later ministry.  I’ve always assumed I’d never experience anything remotely comparable to those sublime moments in the magnificent Gothic surroundings of that place of worship.  

Until now.  As I've enjoyed a deep Ativan-induced slumber on the eve of my bone marrow transplant, a vibrant cloud of witnesses has been pleading, praying, promising on my behalf.  After the nurse came to draw my blood at 3:30 this morning, it broke me from the spell of the Ativan and I lay awake in the darkness, suddenly wide awake and aware of the day’s significance.  To keep from chasing my imagination down too many rabbit trails, I picked up my smart phone and was immediately overwhelmed.  There, in the most mundane instrument of my life, used to text and call and occasionally catch up on Bible or newspaper reading, I was suddenly staring at a cloud of witnesses not named in Hebrews.  These witnesses run their races in settings from corporate consulting to church leadership, from stay-at-home-parenting to sustainable farming.  And here, through the seldom-used Facebook app on my phone, their smiling faces and words of encouragement, their moving prayers and even their sacred songs--all of these crashed and crescendoed into my darkened hospital room, and I knew without a doubt that the Cloud of Witnesses described in Hebrews is still alive and present and as eager as ever to help us run this leg of our race.  And so, miraculously, mysteriously, my humble hospital room took on the grand dimensions of Duke Chapel, where this passage had originally taken on deeper meaning in my life.  This time, however, the cloud of witnesses became visible and audible in the least likely medium--the icons and comment boxes of Facebook.  And I was suddenly reminded that the Savior who became the pioneer and perfecter of our faith is the same one who first showed up in a lowly grotto, surrounded by the first witnesses that ranged from cattle to sheep-herders.  And so it should not surprise me in the least that my phone is now a brimming repository of witnesses that inspire me to lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and to run with perseverance the race that is set before me.  

Even as I am finishing the last lines of this entry, a decisive leg of this race has begun, with the first of 612 cc’s of marrow cells beginning their journey into the darkened places of my body.  My prayer-enlivened imagination now considers these millions of cells to be part of my internal cloud of witnesses, testifying to the extra-mile generosity of an unknown donor, the miraculous capabilities of medical science, and a grace that asks for nothing but the balance of my life in return.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013


I am now settled into my hospital room in the Ashley River Tower of MUSC.  This morning I had what's called a central line placed into my jugular vein. Tomorrow begins the five-day chemotherapy regimen that will prepare me to receive my bone marrow transplant.  

I have been thinking the last few days about the odd combination of feelings I’m experiencing as day zero (the day of my bone marrow transplant) approaches.  On the one hand, over three months after my cancer relapsed, I am eager to get this show on the road.  On the other hand, I am filled with unmitigated dread as I prepare to face a procedure that has a 1 in 5 chance of killing me.  It’s kind of like what I imagine Evel Knievel must have felt as he hit the throttle to approach a ramp that would (hopefully) launch him over a yawning ravine.

In my conversations with friends and loved ones, I’ve begun describing these dueling impulses with one word:“dreadiness.”

I am both ready for the ordeal, and dreading its jagged edges.  

Dreadiness acknowledges that an event that could bring new life takes place in the shadows of untimely death.

If dreadiness is an apt description for my feelings with my own life on the line, I have wondered in the last few days what degree of dreadiness Jesus must have felt in the Garden with the life of the entire world on the line.

For centuries theologians have staked the gospel’s truth on the conviction that Jesus was fully human.  That is, Jesus fully entered into the weakness, contingency, and disorder of life as a fleshly being.  Hangnails and cowlicks, charlie horses and sinus infections, birthmarks and baby’s burps--Jesus saw and knew the everyday realities of living as bodily beings.  I was recently reading Christopher Hitchens’ wickedly funny and poignant book Mortality and I was struck by his profound recognition of what it means to live in the flesh, particularly with cancer:  

Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of “life” when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose...It’s no fun to appreciate to the full of the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.  

And while it would make Hitchens roll in his grave to hear it used to make a theological point, what this to-the-core atheist claims for his own experience is what Christians claim for our Savior: Jesus did not have a body, he was a body.  He experienced in and through the core of his entire self the joys and agonies of life.  And because he did, the wide-ranging experiences of our embodied existence are wrapped up into his saving acts.  From basking in the sun’s welcome warmth to enduring the bleakest, bitterest cold of winter, the experiences we have as body-beings are known to God.  

The way Gregory of Nazaianzus put it: “that which is not assumed is not healed.”  In other words, unless Jesus has known the privations and temptations of the flesh, he hasn’t truly redeemed human beings in our full and complicated (and bodily) existence.

And so as I deal with my own “dreadiness” at facing the ordeal before me, I take solace from knowing that there is One who has faced the darkness without blinking, who has met every growling menace with conquering love, who has borne in his own scars the wounds of an entire universe. Set beside his Garden agony, my pain may be puny, but it is Jesus’ acceptance of suffering’s cup in that forsaken place that steels my soul to bear the pain of these days not with my own courage, grace, and love, but with his.  Dready or not, here comes God--to me, to you, to any in this world who inhabit darkness and yearn for undying Light.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

Light and Darkness

It’s been nearly a month since I posted on this blog--but what a month it’s been.  My focus in the last 3 weeks has been spending time with family, something my blood counts and treatment schedule have (almost miraculously) allowed.  Since December 19, Elise and/or I have made two trips to Lexington, two trips to Indiana (one by way of Kentucky), four trips to Charleston, and an uncalculated number of trips to Wal-Mart.  In the process, we’ve managed to exchange Christmas gifts, eat multiple Christmas dinners, undergo various pre-transplant tests, and finish outfitting the home where we’ll be staying in Charleston during the transplant process.

As we have been busy with all of this travel and preparation, our journeys have been along pathways festooned with Christmas light.  Like the shepherds and magi before us, we have finished our Christmas journeys with a more profound sense of the miracle--that in the darkest season of the year (and sometimes of our lives), God offers light.  Light to lead us.  Light to guide us.  Light to save us.  

This season, I have witnessed  the light shining in the darkness through
meals lovingly prepared
homes and beds generously shared
the generous gifts of others
the gentle attention of mothers
the patient abiding of a congregation
the joyful rhythms of conversation
the miracle of old stories heard fresh
the mystery of God become flesh

With the holy-days of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany fading in our (well-traveled) rear-view mirror, may we receive the light we need for the ground we have yet to cover.  I am now just over two weeks from the transplant that will, God willing, make another person’s strong immune system a functioning replacement of mine.  I’m told there could be dark days in the journey.  Since I’m no poet, I close with the words of someone who is.  In fact, it is these words which are part of the most precious gift I got this Christmas.  The Country of Marriage, a poem by Wendell Berry which is excerpted below, was set to music by my wonderful wife as a Christmas gift to me this year. You can listen to her musical version in the box to the right.  

In it is the lesson of the holy days, which is that darkness holds blessings that await the light’s return:

Sometimes our life reminds me of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing and in that opening a house, an orchard and garden, comfortable shades, and flowers red and yellow in the sun, a pattern made in the light for the light to return to. The forest is mostly dark, its ways to be made anew day after day, the dark richer than the light and more blessed, provided we stay brave enough to keep on going in.

To read the entire poem, click here.