Monthly Archives: February 2007

Surfing Mortals

The Other Side

On my way into the Cancer Care Center yesterday morning, walking from the parking ramp to the check-in desk, I met another patient on her way out. It was Catherine. She had hair. When I first met her, she was as hairless as I was at the time. She wore bandannas, I think. I wore Old Navy beanies.

IVpole.jpgWe’d sit across the room from each other in the infusion-room. She in her chair, plugged into her IV pole, me in mine. Once I overheard her telling another patient about a smoky potato soup she makes often. I’m into soups. So I asked her about it, and she wrote me the recipe.

So yesterday when I saw her waiting by the front doors for her ride, I smiled (she did too when she saw me) and I asked if she was done. Our monthly chemo-infusions had been scheduled on the same day for several months. And at roughly the same time, too. I was merely assuming she had come in earlier than me, and that she was “done” for the day.

She was done with much more than that. Her smile widened at my question, and she opened her bag to pull out a pink certificate signed by all the infusion nurses congratulating her on the completion of her course of chemotherapy. I gave her a good handshake and said, “well done.”

Her gladness dimmed just a little as she told me she expected to return someday. Relapse loomed as certain in her imagination as dusk does every dawn. But whereas the weather page of any local newspaper can tell you when the sun is going to set each day, she didn’t know when the next occurrence of cancer might be for her. She just had a hunch (and a statistically-informed one at that) that her cancer would relapse.

chemo.jpgNevertheless, for now, on this day, she was happy. And I shared her joy. For as she was walking away from her last administration of chemo, I was sitting down for my third-to-last: number 76 of 78. One year ago, as I headed into the final phase of my treatment, I wrote that the light at the end of this tunnel was so bright I was squinting. As it turns out, if I’d held my eyes open long enough, I may’ve seen the light to be the front of the oncoming train that it was, rather than the final release into wide-open spaces for which I was hoping.

Nice Hit

Somebody at church last Sunday asked me if I had been rehabbing. I had gone to the Y a few days earlier for a swim (which for me means aquatic stretching in the therapy pool), and so I was tempted to push out my chin and my chest and say, “Yup. Don’t it show?”

But the perpetual reality has been otherwise. If I may make another football analogy (sorry, Jesse):

When I was in junior high, I was a big kid. I mean, I had my growth spurt a year or two before nearly everyone else, and so I was five-foot-six, one hundred and thirty pounds in seventh grade. As such, I was one of the bigger kids in my class. I played football for two years. Football was fun for those two years. But when I showed up for conditioning in grade nine, every other ninth grader had gotten bigger over the summer months, and football wasn’t as much fun any more.

This was when I more or less decided to give my time to music rather than sports. I thought it’d be safer.

One great thing I remember learning in football was that, if you wanted to take down the guy with the ball, hit him low. It didn’t pay to jump on his back, especially if he was bigger than you – he might just keep on running. Nope, take him out at the knees and he’ll go down fast, and he’ll go down hard.

Trying to rehab this year – to build back strength and stamina – has been like running downfield with no offensive protection. The other team has twenty-one guys rather than eleven, and I am my team. What’s worse, the referee has a broken whistle. So when I start rising to my feet after a good tackle (as the tacklee, not the tackler) the other team hits me again – takes me out at the knees – rather than gaining ground, I’m losing yardage every time I try to get back up.

aedanshovel.jpgWeekly and monthly chemo (as well as this accursed week of prednisone) takes me out at the knees on a regular, almost predictable basis. I typically have two bad weeks a month (utter mental, emotional, and physical fatigue), and two good weeks (just the physical fatigue – and I can sometimes overcome this with Chai tea and Pepsi). If these two good weeks happen to be the two weeks I get sick with some sort of bug (like the head and chest cold I’ve been fighting these past two weeks), then these two good weeks are just “not-so-bad” weeks. But regardless of the adjectives I end up using to describe my two better weeks, once they’ve passed, I take the prescribed drugs that drag me into the bad weeks once again.

Train

This cycle, however, will soon be coming to an end. After yesterday, only two more chemo-infusions mark my calendar. Come mid-May, I will wait for my ride at the front door of the Cancer Care Center holding my certificate of completion (I do hope it’s a color other than pink), walking away from infusion #78, and into the first phase of this new life.

And while that day will hardly be an instantaneous resurgence of health and vitality, it will signal a stopping of the clock, in a sense. Time to get up and regroup. Time to fuel up and taxi round for another good run down the runway – perhaps this time, finally up off the ground and into higher places.

But for the time being, I have a few more dark places to explore. This week and the coming weekend are one of them. I have taken my first dose of five of prednisone, and will venture through the haze of withdrawal once again come Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Please be praying for Jen and me this week… that we would know what kinds of preparations to make so as to render these days easier to manage… and for the right help to make that happen. The experience a few weeks back detailed in my last post has us a bit wary.

And my body hurts so badly. I swim and it feels good when I’m wet. Then the next day, I’m sick and achy and fatigued. Almost thoroughly unable to move. I remember those days in ninth-grade, conditioning for football: each day’s workout caused aches and pains greater than the day before, but each workout developed an otherwise unknown and unrecognized strength. Endurance. I need this still. And I’m eager to be able to work in such a way that I do nurture endurance, rather than this destructive atrophy (and consequential apathy) that seems to greet me on the far side of whatever efforts I muster.

Current

elisnow.jpgIt’s a humiliating thing for humans to know real weakness – when you just can’t make things better – but it is eventually as much a part of our lives as dusk is a part of every day. Unless the Lord returns first, we will all die. And there is both greater courage and fuller joy living in the recognition of that fact, than there is in pretending it’s not the case.

This morning, Catherine demonstrated to me that she gets something not all of us do: she lives in hope and momentum in spite of the anticipated end. Some people spend their lives frantically swimming against the tide, denying at the same time that the tide exists. But the swell is taking us in, either way.

When in the surf, one rises to the surface with much less effort when willing to agree with the water. It is both humbling and wise to recognize mortals cannot compete with the swirling waters of mortality. To live well, we must acknowledge that living life each day brings us one day closer to death. To surf well, one must know which way the wave is going. Point your board in the right direction and the wave will pick you up and give you a view like no other. And you can do tricks. The guy fighting the current just gets water in his face.

So I pray I will surf into this new and (if the Lord wills) stronger season of my life with the awareness that I will yet someday die (again, unless the Lord returns). And I will trust that this awareness will cause me to receive the Love of Christ and His Call all the more, in the hope that His fortitude will bring life to and through my fragility, until at last I journey through one last valley, and land safely on heaven’s bright shore.

Voices

hats.jpgIt’d be fun to unpack this more specifically, and maybe I will someday, but for now these metaphors will have to do. The writing I’ve done already has taxed my wrists more than what makes me stronger. And I haven’t yet written about much of what I intended to.

The last few weeks have been more the “not-so-bad” weeks rather than the flat-out good, but there have been a few things in the midst of them worth mentioning that were flat-out great.

I spent the good part of these weeks preparing two different messages for two different occasions. I’m coming to enjoy the entirety of this process more and more. One was for a Valentines Banquet hosted by Living Hope Church in St. Michael. Jen and I were invited to do the program, so I spoke and we sang. A recording of much of it can be downloaded or listened to at the Living Hope Website. We closed the program singing “Love Real” from To Entertain. I played guitar. It was so good to do this again. But it was just as disappointing to be reminded of how much my wrists hurt in the days that follow. Ten minutes of guitar. Ten days of tender wrists.

The second message was for the Ash Wednesday service at Emmaus. This ended up being one of the most necessary messages I’ve ever prepared (for me and for others, too, it seems), and I’m excited about it. I will end up posting it for download on this site eventually, but for now, I’ve posted a rough transcript as a post on the musings blog of this site. It’s called “Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” and it’s a narrative meditation on Psalm 23. Read it while listening to Ginny Owen’s “If You Want Me To,” and you might even cry like I did when I gave it.

The last web thing I’ll make note of is a new downloadable mp3 we posted last week of a studio track that never made it to an album. It’s a recording of Psalm 142 that Ben Monseth and I did a few years back. Piano, cello, and vocals. There’s a link to it from my homepage and the music page. I figured it was fitting to give it away in light of some of the experiences I’ve shared from this last month.

Finally, along with a reminder to pray for us this coming weekend, I’d like some of you to know that I’ll be speaking at a FLY District Day Retreat at the YMCA up in Fergus Falls on March 11th. The theme is a common one for me: “In Uz With Abba: Trusting God Works All Things For Our Good,” and the content I’ve presented at least twice before – once in five sessions and once in three. This time I’ll be doing it in two. Please pray as I prepare. I know I’ve said it before, but I really like doing this. Nevertheless, there are certain days when even the appealing nature of this task isn’t enough to call forth the strength to do it. I need more.

Your comments on past posts have been very helpful in encouraging me to this end. Thanks each of you for taking the time to read and respond. I pray you are blessed.

Still His (and hanging ten),
Jeremy

gooseinsnow.jpgPS. Thanks to the Wiley’s, the Barlands, and Ed for digging us out of the snow this weekend!

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Categories: Cancer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Through The Valley

THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
PSALM 23

It was a warm spring weekend at the end of April 2005. I had been incredibly busy for four months. In the studio and at church, the demands of ministry had required more of me than I had to give, and any capacity I’d once had for compassionate ministry had shriveled up in the pressures of the season. I hadn’t spent time alone with my Creator for months. His Word had become foreign to me. I was still teaching it, but I hadn’t listened for a long time. As a result I’d become spiritually stale in faith and deed. Akin to a dead man washed ashore after a shipwreck, I needed reviving. I needed new life breathed into me. To be brought back to life. To be rescued and revived.

vueshadow.jpgMy wife willingly gave me blessing to take a three-day silent retreat at the completion of an album that had consumed me for so long.?Ǭ† I drove northward from the Twin Cities towards Inspiration Point Bible Camp near Fergus Falls. I brought no music. On the drive up I sought to recall passages of scripture that I had memorized in years past. And while when speaking or teaching I occasionally find scripture as accessible as though I had a photographic memory, that afternoon heading west on Interstate 94, in the spiritual comatose nurtured by my apathy, all I could remember were the words of the 23rd Psalm.

Psalm 23. The foremost psalm of comfort and consolation. Undoubtedly the most well-known Psalm, if not the most loved, across all cultures and generations in the history of the world. In brilliant poetry Israel’s King David identifies the Lord as our Shepherd, and we as His sheep. That afternoon as I drove, I flipped open a little NIV just to make sure I was getting the verses in the right order.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”

Paths of righteousness… Sounds like the right road to be on. Sounds like it goes someplace good. If the journey makes a man’s life, this is the journey by which a life is made good. The path is righteousness, and I would assume it leads to righteousness, as well.

There are three things we can know about this path from these verses: 1) Who leads us on it: It is the Good Shepherd, the Lord, who takes us down this road. It is He who directs our steps and keeps us on this road – on this road, and not another. 2) Why we’re on it: The Good Shepherd has put us on this road for His purposes – for His name’s sake. This is important to Him. He’s got His reasons. 3) Where it goes…

Did I get the order right? Verse four comes after verse three, right?

“He leads me on paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…”

I had parked my car at the bottom of Inspiration Peak at the tail end of my three-hour drive. It was an hour before sunset, and I felt a good hike up to the second highest peak in Minnesota might be a good thing to do before checking into camp for the night. The hike was harder than it had ever been before. I was so easily winded. I assumed I was merely out of shape.

A half hour later at the top of what the Ojibwe call “Rustling Leaf Mountain” I sat down on the backrest of a wooden bench to watch the sunset. It was warm up there. And windless. There were no leaves rustling when it first occurred to me that the paths of righteousness in David’s Psalm lead through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. This is where the Good Shepherd leads His sheep. This is where the Paths of Righteousness must go.

I silently cried sitting there that evening, watching the sun go down on what I felt was another passing season of my life, as I knew somehow that this truth had deep and painful implications for me – indeed, for any sheep who was in the Good Shepherd’s care.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death did not sound like a good thing to me. Three words converged into one moniker maliciously dripping with negative implications.

Four years earlier I had gone backpacking with three other guys for a week in the Utah desert. We’d hiked five miles into a little valley called Hackberry – seventeen miles from the nearest highway – and set up camp at the base of a narrow canyon.

During the day we would hike up and out of the canyon into the high places. There we could see for miles, and it was beautiful. But in the middle of the canyon, there wasn’t much to see but the gray, rocky canyon walls. In the valley, there was no reference point, no horizon?Ǭ† – there was no way of knowing where we were. Without a guide or a good map, one could easily get lost in the valley.

valleypalestine.jpgAnother thing about the valley is that there was so little light. While the days at that time of the year were near fourteen or fifteen hours long, the sunlight reached the valley floor for only six to seven hours each day. And when the sun did shine into the valley, it was a stifling heat, stale and breathless. But most of the time, it was dark and cool, a constant shadow. Not shade. Shade is good. This was shadow. A blocking of the sun.

I guess there was at least one good thing that could be said about that valley – there was water there. We set up camp next to a stream in the middle of this valley. More specifically, right next to a spring that fed the stream. This was the freshest water one could find in that desert. We’d fill our canteens every morning there in the valley before heading to the high country for the day.

I’ve heard that this was also often true of the valleys in the country where David was a shepherd as a boy. The freshest pools of water were in the valley. That’s one of the places a good shepherd would bring his flock for water. To drink elsewhere would be risking contamination or disease.

There’s something else I remember hearing about those valleys in David’s day – they were dangerous. It was a dangerous place to be. Thieves and beasts lurked in those shadows. Wolves lay in wait for the unattended sheep or traveler walking through the valley alone, posed to attack their prey when there’d be no one near to help or to hear the cries.

No, I do not think I like The Valley of the Shadow of Death. I’ve come to intimately know something about this Shadow and its valley. Something that is suggested by the valley imagery and implied by its name. And something that has been experientially proven to me.

As I sat on that hill that evening watching the sun set – as I was catching my breath from the hike up the path – a cancerous tumor the size of a man’s hand was spreading its fingers over every vital organ in my chest, threatening to choke out my life in a matter of months.

I would find this out just a few weeks later. And the subsequent chemotherapy necessary to rid my being of this cancer would change the landscape of my life for at least the next two years. I could tell of four specific occurrences in which death loomed so near I shivered in its shadow. It was all I could see. And I would have to tell you that I was afraid. I was afraid mostly for my family. Who would care for them if I were to leave this world so long before them?

While many might legitimize this fear in terms of genuine love and concern, I have seen it to be in me a lack of trust. Could I trust our Good Shepherd to do here what I could no longer do if I were dead? Could I trust Him enough to agree with Him when He said it was my time to go?

King David did not quiver in this shadow, and he has left his God-inspired poetry as a clue for us as to how this was so for him. He tells us why he did not fear, and why we need not fear, as well.

“Even though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for THOU ART WITH ME, THY ROD AND THY STAFF, THEY COMFORT ME.”

In the darkness of the shadow of the valley, the sheep may not be able to see the shepherd, but it could feel the end of the shepherd’s staff nudging it along, guiding it first this way, and then that, keeping the sheep on the path, near the shepherd, and out of harm’s way. And though not knowing much (why they were there, where they were going) the sheep would know that if there was the shepherd’s staff, then there was also the shepherd.

We do not have a physical rod or staff to guide us in this life, but neither are we sheep. We are people. And just as a rod and staff would provide guidance and security for a sheep in the shadows, the Word and the Spirit do the same for us in our darkest seasons.

The Word of Christ and the Spirit of Christ testify to the presence of Christ, who evoked this imagery when He spoke of Himself as The Good Shepherd. It is through these means – the Word and the Spirit – that God seeks to communicate to us still that He is with us, and our valleys are no surprise to Him. This rod and this staff tell us that God is here, He knows what He is doing, and we can trust Him to work His good through this bad thing.

There was one other significant thing that God did for me (and in me) that weekend up near Inspiration Peak. The evening I left the camp I stopped my car where the gravel road leaving Inspiration Point met up with the highway. There was one book I had brought along that I hadn’t found the time to read, and fortunately for me, the author of this book had included a CD of himself reading the book. Convinced that it was alright if I listened to something other than music, I put the CD in my stereo and pulled onto the highway.

Job Poems.jpgThe book was by Minneapolis Pastor John Piper. It was poetry – a four-part poem on the life of Job called The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God. As a work of art I consider it to hold the potential of a classic. And as balm for the soul, I consider it one of the more foundational works in fortifying my faith in the strength and goodness of God.

I drove the backroads of central Minnesota for forty-five minutes that evening in a life-changing blurr. With the sun already set, the moon rising high, the windows down and tears blurring my vision, I drove slowly, turning onto whatever road seemed most conducive to the solitude I needed to fully absorb the story I was being told.

Job’s story spoke so deeply into my being that God could be trusted. And that God was so good, and so strong, that His good purposes would be accomplished – not merely in spite of Satan’s rage – but even in and through Satan’s efforts to destroy whatever God has made and is making good.

Redemption is something God does. No one does redemption like God. He alone can take something absolutely awful and take hold of it for the absolutely best possible outcome. It is for this reason that in this season of Lent we remember and honor Christ on the Cross. For on Calvary, God brought that which is absolutely good through that which was absolutely awful. Christ, with our sin on His body, hanging upon our cross, was forsaken by God so that we need never be removed from God’s life-sustaining presence. Because of Christ we can always say, “the Lord is with us.”

And In the Garden of Gethsemane we see the Lord in anguish, crying out to His Father on the eve of His descent into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. He prays with blood and tears for another way to the other side of this valley. Yet being it was clear to Him that His Father was leading Him on this Path of Righteousness as He always had, and that this Path went through the Valley, Jesus spoke His resolve in these words, “Not my will, but Yours, be done.”

So God in Christ, our Good Shepherd, knows exactly what it is like to want a way out, to ache for a better way. God gets it. He understands. Yet in the perfect display of trust which followed – His body broken and His blood spilled out – our Good Shepherd not only taught us trust, but fulfilled trust for us.

In faith and in the sacraments we bind ourselves to Christ. We remember His suffering and His obedience. We remember His trust in following His Father into the Valley and to the Cross. And we bind ourselves to Him. I need this. I need communion. If I am to walk the path into the valley I need more than the faith I can muster, I need His. I need to commune with The Good Shepherd. I need Him with me. I need Him in me.

There is one last vital thing we must remember about valleys, and it is so obvious that we can too easily take it for granted. It is demonstrated in Christ’s resurrection. It is implied in the language of the 23rd Psalm. And it is the substance of the hope that keeps us walking in the Shadow of Death, whether that death is the death of a relationship, a dream, a career, a loved one, our health, or our bodies.

The vital thing we must remember about valleys is that valleys lie between high places. Though the path of righteousness leads into the valley, it does not end there. It goes through. The Shepherd is with us through the valley. There is an end to this struggle.

“For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though He brings grief, He will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:31-32).

“After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all Grace, who called you to eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (I Peter 5:10).

There is a view on the other side of the valley that will be worth all our sorrow. To see it, God must first heal our eyes, and He does this in the Shadow of the Valley. God has things to tell us on the other side that we cannot hear unless our ears are healed, and He does this in the Silence of the Valley.

The Word and the Spirit, our Shepherd’s rod and staff, assure us that “the end of a matter is better than it’s beginning.” Though the Good Shepherd may lead us into The Valley of the Shadow of Death, He does not leave us there. The path goes through. We must remember that just as Christ is no longer on the Cross or in the Grave, we are travelers – visitors – in the Valley. Not residents, not citizens.

“For our citizenship is in heaven…”

It is the High Countries to which we belong. It is there from which we have come, and it is there to which we are going.

“And [we] will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

AMEN.

Categories: General | 1 Comment

On Runways And Going Crazy

A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness,
But a crushed spirit who can bear?

Football

football.jpgImagine me standing side by side with Peyton Manning. He’s in uniform, holding one of those huge official NFL pigskins. I’m in sweatpants and slippers. Peyton plays football. He says so. And I say, “I play football, too.” As proof, I hold up my 70’s-vintage, hand-held, push-button Classic Football by Mattel with the green screen and the little red light bulbs.

I play football, too.

By comparison, it’s not really football. I know there’s a Madden game out there with a rumble feature and pretty realistic graphics and all, but I get dizzy watching the screen, and too much telly hangs heavy on my heart.

Once in real life I tackled Benjy Deubner on a full sprint. Wes Patterson took me down during a game of two-hand touch at Camp Kitchi-Khanis, and both Wes and Ben are big boys. So I know what real football is, and I know this game isn’t it. But it’s as close as I can get right now.

Runways

My friend Dave Roise and I have something in common (besides music, faith, frame, and our aging taste-buds): we both love flying. Dave actually had the guts (and the time – before eight kids) to get his pilot’s license. By the time I came of age, I’d read too many stories of young aspiring musicians dying in plane wrecks to spend time learning how to read the gauges.

pipercub.jpgBut when I was a kid, my uncle Mike would take me up in his yellow Piper Cub. Mike would let me fly. My dad’s duck-hunting buddy, Bob, would land his green Cub on the road in front of our house, taxi down our driveway, and ask mom if he could take me for a ride.

How cool is that?

Once Bob offered to take one of my dad’s aunts up. She was a big lady. A Piper Cub is a fairly light, front/back, two-seater (technical jargon) with sticks and pedals coming up out of the floor for control (more technical jargon). There’s one stick in front of both seats. When one is moved, the other moves with it.

So you’ve probably seen enough movies and heard “Pull back!!! Pull back!!!” enough to know one pulls the stick back to go up. And you probably know where this is going. (I find it intriguing, but irritating when tangents hang unresolved – a useful writing tool when making a point, which this story may not – so here’s what happened…)

elisapple.jpgBob taxied onto the road and picked up speed for a quarter-mile or more – whatever it was, it was significantly more than it’d usually require – and he pulled back on the stick to take off. The stick only went so far. And instead of the sudden silence of the landing gears leaving gravel, Bob heard the sound of my great aunt grunting oddly behind him.

Fortunately for them in this case the runway went on for quite a distance (as roads typically do). But most runways aren’t like that. Runways begin. And runways end. If, when accelerating down a runway, you aren’t off the ground before a certain point, you must throttle down your engine, stop, turn around, and in some cases, taxi all the way back to the other end of the runway (if you’ve flown you know how painfully long this takes) to try again.

Empathy

wristband.jpgOne of the more difficult aspects of having a chronic illness (or cancer, or pain, or loss, or a handicap, or a hardship of any sort) is this nagging sense that no one really understands. This is both a reality and an exaggeration. It is true that my suffering is my suffering and not someone else’s. My pain really can only be known by me (with God being the exception – He knows).

But it’s also true that all of us hurt in some way at some time, and our hurts help each of us understand the suffering of others, which, by the way, may be incomprehensibly more horrid than any thing we may endure. So there are people who really do understand. People who get our pain better, perhaps, than we do.

The real wicked thing is how subtly a genuine need and our desire to communicate that need becomes an incessant demand to be understood. I’ve experienced this in others and in myself firsthand. It’s childish and completely uninviting. I can smell it in conversations and the words of others like a dirty diaper. Perhaps because I’m sitting in it so often myself.

terrace.jpgNonetheless it is necessary to let those who love us know how and when we hurt and how they can help – THOSE WHO LOVE US. What they do with the knowledge of our need is up to them. And how we respond to how they respond is up to us. We as much have the opportunity to love in the absence of love as they have in the presence of need.

So I have a hard time sometimes coming to the keyboard and tapping out the details of my pain (or even my descriptions of the good times) for the general public (versus my closest friends and family), for fear that I’m playing to the adolescent mantra of ME-ME-ME, whether by my whine or by my whinny. But I’ve come to recognize recently why it is that I must do this.

One reason is the obvious and often stated desire to inform the prayers of those of you who do pray for me. I’m not hesitant to say that I need to be prayed for. And I’m rarely hesitant to say how. At least for most things.

But the other that has come to mind is the fact that not everyone can put his or her hurts to words. I can. And perhaps my words will give voice to the needs that others have but cannot express. And perhaps this voice will speak into each of us a deeper longing to love well. And then perhaps we will do it.

snownight.jpgSo for those of you who read my last post and wondered what in the world was going on, I hope this clarifies. I’m writing to nurture empathy. Not for me, but in us, for others. If my method was too abrupt an aversion from my normal writing, I apologize. Please be certain there is no numbness to the kindness I’ve been shown in so many ways.

God has allowed me to experience in these passing moments what other people live with daily. I write what it was like so that those who can’t put their pain to words can be heard and perhaps understood. Then maybe the rest of us will be able to love them better, and maybe their pain will subside just a little.

Prednisone

Prednisone may cause euphoria, insomnia, mood changes, personality changes, psychotic behavior, or severe depression. It may worsen any existing emotional instability.

How many sci-fi plots have revolved around a weapon of some sort that fries a person slowly from the inside out? The kind of thing where there’s no evidence the person is being killed until he’s dead – except this tortured look of panic on his face right before he goes…

Mental maladies are like this. And those that are brought on by medications that doctors say are necessary to cure other illnesses are particularly diabolic. It is, as they say, the cost of the cure.

meds.jpgI have swallowed more narcotic and prednisone pills in my life than I would have liked to. But the evidence so far says I’m probably better off for it, considering the damage an unresolved Crohn’s flare-up can wreak on a guy’s gut, the immobility that is brought on by untamed pain, or the typical outcome of an unaddressed cancer of the terminal sort.

Nonetheless, the residual and cumulative effects of these drugs and repeated withdrawal episodes have nurtured in me a deep hatred for The Zone and OxyCrawl. I am thankful that these drugs do what they do to keep me alive and “well,” but every trip through is harder than the last.

This last weekend was one such journey.

I’ve explained this before, but the treatment protocol I’m on includes five days of high dosage prednisone every four weeks. This is a drug that one would typically be weaned from, but not with this protocol. It’s what I think is called “pulse” or “shock” therapy. I’ve done it twelve times now, and am scheduled to do three more. The 2 to 3 days after the 5 are the toughest ones for me. Other days I may be very tired, but these are days of fatigue plus – extreme fatigue, plus mental/emotional fragility of the obscene sort.

hobo.jpgOne might ask why this has not been so much of a problem before, and I wonder the same myself. While I have noticed the emotional upset in months past, these last few have become more and more difficult.

The only thing I can say is that I don’t think we fully understand the effects of these drugs on our bodies – the chemo, narcotics, steroids, and anti-depressants. I’ve noticed, particularly with the chemo, the same dose of any particular drug can trigger two different reactions at different times. It’s as though the last dose somehow changed my body, and this dose is dropped into a new pool (considering the DNA-bashing qualities of chemo, this may actually be the case).

Losing It

pockets.jpgWhatever it may be, there were a few hours Saturday and Sunday that were just plain scary. I was home alone with Aedan both times – which for the most part was a good thing, as when he’s happy he helps keep me sane and anchored. He was sick and had just woken from a fever and Tylenol-induced nap. He asked me for a glass of water, and when I tried to rise to get one for him, I had a debilitating anxiety-attack. My vision went fuzzy, my ears rang, my limbs tingled, my chest went numb, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

I couldn’t get out of bed.

By God’s grace I was able to keep this from Aedan’s knowledge. And after awhile, it passed. But I had to call Jen and ask her to leave her sister’s baby shower to come home. Later that evening, I was finer than a happy summer day.

Sunday, a similar thing happened, only the physical symptoms weren’t as intense. But both times, what was going on in my mind was the most terrifying thing. I was hearing overlapping lies and accusations said about me, and by me about others that I just couldn’t make go away. It was like I was in a car going too fast down a loose gravel road, with rocky ravines on both sides, dangerously close to careening out of control. As I paced the living room floor Sunday afternoon I prayed. I prayed simply but sincerely. And it took every ounce of my being – every calorie spent – to hold it all together. It felt like I was losing my mind – like I was just a breath away from going insane. This is a scary thing.

bababuddy.jpgI was rescued by a few well-timed phone calls, a handful of well-placed prayers, and a couple chuckles with my dad. Again, come Sunday evening, it was as though the whole thing had been just a bad dream.

And while there are still daily aches and the hanging propensity for sadness, it is bearable and not unlike being human – something other than the medicine-induced mess I stumbled through last weekend. It seems at least for this month, the worst is behind me.

The Little Beast

But the thing I want to be really clear about is how covert mental-emotional volatility can be. It is a sneaky machine. And it is especially important, at a time in which it and the broken lives left in its wake are so common, to understand how hard it is to detect. And how easy it is to dismiss.

While my mind was near the edge, my body was well-dressed and groomed. While my thoughts were falling apart, my words held together in conversation. I could be polite. I could be coherent. Yet with my closest friend, I had a hard time being frank about the urgency of my need for help.

Another thing to note is that it did not matter to me that the emotions I was experiencing were rooted in thoughts that were not true. It did not matter in the moment that my inability to master those emotions was due to the chaos of chemical reactions caused by medications. The pain and the panic were just as real as if I’d just watched my legs get crushed in some tragic accident.

Lastly, it was horrifying to realize in weakness how easily the recognition of something true (few really could know exactly how I hurt) was twisted into falsehood (no one cares, this will never change, I’m all alone…) and turned into the opportunity for some very destructive emotions.

Traditional doctrinal language for this is “carnal nature, the old man, the flesh…” When our will is weakened, this beast of a thing thrashes about as in the throes of death. Even, I believe (not all doctrine teaches this, though I believe the Bible does), in the minds of those who have been redeemed.

Lifeline

We are all utterly dependent upon the grace of God to keep it together, and the mercy of God to hold us when it all falls apart. And I believe that the evidence of this grace and this mercy is most often more than merely an esoteric, internal experience. It is a very visceral, practical outworking through the words and actions and prayers of people just like you and me. It may end in an experience of the spiritual sort, and it most definitely begins there (love starts with God), but it is most often articulated through the concrete acts of compassion in flesh and blood conduits of God’s choosing.

2boys.jpgFor me this weekend it came through the likes of my boys Aedan and Eli, my mom and dad, good friends Dan, Debbie, Bruce, Mavis, Mark, and Ben, and my beautiful bride. The rescue God gave came through them. I’ve gone to great lengths this last week to chronicle the details of this experience (not all of it posted here), partly so I’d never forget, but mostly to help fortify the resolve of folks like you reading this to become the rescue in the lives of those you may know who suffer in these ways.

I journey through these wicked wastelands a handful of days each month, but some people live there. A few have taken up residence because they don’t want to leave. But maybe others are still there because there’s nobody who knows where they are, or how much they hurt, or how they can be helped. If nothing else, I hope my words this week have served to give voice to the answers to these questions, if not the answers themselves.

Another fun trip down the runway.

There’s so much more I could say, and I hope to, but not here. Not now. I appreciate the attention you’ve given to have read this much already, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it, but I’ve already pushed this blog well beyond what blogs were made to do. Any more would be material for a book, not a blog.

swimming.jpgBut briefly, for those of you who read these updates to know what we’ve been up to, I must tell of some real good times between the bad. Better said, the bad came between the good: Christmas with both families; a New Years solo retreat at Mount Olivet Retreat Center; a handful of speaking opportunities; a three-day trip to Michigan for a pastors/leaders conference at Mars Hill; a cold weekend at the Fargo Ramada with family (two trips down the water slide); a weekend at the Cotton Mansion in Duluth for our five-year anniversary; and plenty of life-shaping one-on-one with my boys.

There has been much good.

That said, at least twice we’ve throttled down at the end of the runway and turned around to take another run. It is hard to get off the ground. And with three more courses of this chemo/prednisone combo on the calendar, it’ll be summer before we’re able to do something more than spend fuel running back and forth down this runway.

home.jpgBut the run is still a rush. While it’d be as wrong for me to say I’m well now as it’d be for me to say I play football like Payton Manning, I sure don’t mind pushing these buttons. There’s no doubt here that when God has done what He means to do in and through this junk, it’ll pass.

Trusting that I am forever…

Still His,

Jeremy

elidrums.jpg

Categories: Cancer | Tags: | 6 Comments

No One Understands

“No one understands. No one gets how much I hurt. No one gets how lonely I feel. No one cares enough to understand. No one has ever suffered this much. If only they knew how hard this was, they’d surely do something to help. I have a right to be understood! I have a right to be cared for! I have a right to be mad when I’m not!”

No, they won’t understand. They can’t understand. Your pain is unique. But it is unique only in that it is yours. It is extraordinary suffering only in that it is your suffering. But it is not unlike the hurts of others who’ve come before you. It is not unlike the pain of others who suffer now. You can’t know their ache. They can’t know yours. This is true. But we can share the work of bearing this burden. We can lend our legs to the load. We can carry together.

Pain is hard to quantify. It is hard to measure. It is difficult to place suffering on a scale and come up with a rating that gives bragging rights to some and weakling labels to others. Good thing, too. But consequently most of us end up feeling misunderstood. We wish the world could walk in our shoes for just a minute. We want others to feel our pain.

But this is not right. We don’t need more pain. We need more healing. We need less people hurting and more people whole. Let my lame legs be bound to the strong frame of another, and I will walk. Break us both and we will die in the ditch together. Together, but we will die.

You can’t feel my pain. I’d prefer you didn’t. I need you well. The world needs you well. But might you bend a little lower to lift me up if you knew just how close to the ground I’ve come? I don’t want you to hurt, but I want you to know how I do.

Most of us can’t put our sorrow to words. Most of us will never get the degree to which you’ve suffered. Most of us will struggle all our lives to understand or be understood. And most of us will never do either. None of us ever could fully.

But we can try. You may not be able to find the right adjectives for your hurts, and I may feel that those I choose reach to grasp the fringes of my pain, but perhaps my words will become your words. Perhaps what I’ve said in seeking to communicate my need will give voice to what you’ve been trying to say for years. And suddenly, they will get it. Suddenly, you will get it, and you’ll be able to help. How good would that be?

So have I said it plainly enough? Can I say it now? We must trust the grace of God enough to speak the reality of our hurts to those closest to us, however close or unclose they may be. It is the grace of God’s infinite understanding of our pain that will catch us if our words fall on deaf ears or indifference. And it is the grace of His revealing and meeting those needs, to and through the flesh and blood bringers of His goodness, when our words create the context for a response of genuine compassion.

And it is the grace of God when, though our humble request for help is really a childish demand to be heard, it is met by the forgiving and giving embrace of the people and the Lord who love us most.

God places the lonely in families, and it is adversity for which the brother is born. We are a race and we are a people. The conversation of need began a long time ago. The final word of provision was spoken on a cross, and the final word was the first. Need is the opportunity to love. Speak your word, and let your need for another become the opportunity for the other to love.

Then once you’ve spoken. Listen. Maybe this time the opportunity to love will be yours.

Categories: Cancer | 3 Comments

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