A chair with a view

WindowI lucked out the other day at the Infusion Center.

Jeannette found me a chair in a quiet corner, with no loud TV viewers in close proximity, and on an end with a window. To make things even better, it was in the realm of Barb, one of the compassionate veteran oncology nurses who always get the needle in the vein on the first try. Jeannette, the nurse in charge of the center, remembers me from the original cancer, and is unaccountably fond of me.

The first time I saw the center, it was after hours. Deserted in the late afternoon, unlit in the slanting sunlight, it was a little eerie. I walked in, looked around, and shuddered, the kind of shudder old-timers explain as the result of someone walking over your grave. The first time I had a treatment there, I entered feeling fine, but had to be helped out of my chair, thanks to the cherry-Kool-Aid-colored drug cocktail the nurses call “the Red Devil.” Inflammatory Breast Carcinoma is a particularly nasty and aggressive cancer, and requires a treatment to match.

This one is, in comparison, a piece of cake with extra frosting. The cancer is Stage 4 – the IBC decided on a return engagement in my sacrum – but the treatment is relatively easy. I take a pill every morning with my breakfast; once a week I take a Mystery Pill, part of a clinical study. Is it the real deal, or a placebo? I suspect the former, but even my oncologist doesn’t know. Once a quarter, I have scans to be sure that the cancer is behaving itself. Once a month, I get an infusion, a bone-building drug, delivered via IV. It leaves me feeling a little flu-ish for a couple of days.

I would doubtless have bitched and moaned at length about something like this Before Cancer; now, a veteran of much harsher treatments, I shrug it off. It’s not chemo; I’m not sick; I have hair; my brain is unfogged. How can I complain?

Now I focus on gratitude: gratitude for the researchers who have made it possible for me to survive this long with such a good quality of life, gratitude for my caring doctors, gratitude for the best phlebotomist I have ever had the pleasure to encounter, gratitude for the careful, caring nurses who even laugh at my jokes. I’m grateful for the friendly volunteer, a retired EEOC lawyer, who passed around the Girl Scout cookies (Thin Mints!) she discovered in a cabinet, and for all those who smile back when I smile at them. I’m grateful for a window to see a blooming garden on a sunny day in May. I’m grateful for the boss who gives me the time I need for my treatments. I’m grateful to God for giving me more time, however long that turns out to be.

The cancer has changed me, in more than physical ways, in good and caring ways. In that sense, even a deadly cancer can contain a blessing. I savor the view through the window, and say a prayer of thanks.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

‘It’s déjà vu all over again’

I don’t dwell on it.

I don’t care to be defined by the disease. I do not claim it as my own. I declined to put a pink ribbon magnet on my car. I wear my screaming pink “Survivor” T-shirt from the Komen walk only when everything else is in the wash.

Still, I can’t forget that I had breast cancer. The reminders are as close as the scars I bear, and the tiny tattoo on my sternum that helped  the radiation techs calibrate precisely where to blast me. They are as close as the pill bottle on my nightstand that contains the unpleasant maintenance meds I have to take when I awake each morning.

And now it’s back.  As the late Yogi Berra famously misspoke, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Actually, that cancer is not back, which is a blessing; the oncologist tells me that if it shows up again, the end will be in sight. No, it’s a new and different breast cancer: ductal, not lobular; early stages, not late. The refrain has changed, but the song remains the same.

Frankly, I’m annoyed. It’s too soon: almost exactly two years after my first diagnosis. I haven’t had a chance to recover fully. My friends, a wonderful, generous, giving group who provided a life-saving support system, haven’t had a chance to recover fully.  I have work to do. But life is indifferent to our schedules.

This time is easier, in that I know what to expect, like an ex-con returning to the pen. My medical team, one of the best in the world, is already in place. The treatment should be simpler and less debilitating. If the cancer has not spread, I can avoid chemo; if it has spread, the chemo won’t be as bad as last time. If I undergo the surgery – a “simple bilateral mastectomy” – radiation treatment will not be necessary.

More importantly, I have already been on the knife’s edge between life and death. I have felt the reassuring presence of Christ as I hovered on the verge of unconsciousness. I know that there is more than this world, that there is nothing to fear.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to go without a fight. I have promises to keep. I have things I need to do, and plans I intend to see through.

And so I try to maintain a balance between the tug of this world and the promise of the next, doing what I can in the here and now, but aware that my life here may end at any time. It’s a useful reminder: isn’t that how Christians are supposed to live every day?

– Sarah Bryan Miller

I have always loved this hymn. The words are from the 5th century, by Synesius of Cyrene; the translation was made by Allen William Chatfield in 1875. The tune, “Southwell”, is number 641 in The Hymnal 1982; Benjamin Britten made memorable use of it in his church opera “Noyes Fludde.”

Lord Jesus, think on me,
and purge away my sin;
from harmful passions set me free,
and make me pure within.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
with care and woe oppressed;
let me thy loving servant be,
and taste thy promised rest.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
nor let me go astray;
through darkness and perplexity
point thou the heavenly way.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
that, when the flood is passed,
I may the eternal brightness see,
and share thy joy at last.

Lord Jesus, think on me,
that I may sing above
to Father, Holy Ghost and thee
the songs of praise and love.

 

 

Sermon notes: If God is for us, who can be against us?

(Preached at 8 and 10:30 a.m. at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St. Louis)

“If God is for us, who can be against us?”

A lot of possibilities may spring to mind in answer to that question: the list of people and things that cause us pain – from endless wars to deadly diseases, from an economic disaster that has taken a terrible toll on our country to a series of natural disasters – may seem endless. Some days, it even seems as though the only possible response is, “What isn’t against us?”

In one of the most meaningful sections in the Letter to the Romans, the greatest of the epistles, Paul addresses that question.

Although the worst was yet to come, the Christians of Rome already faced oppression on every side. Persecution came both from Jews who saw Christianity as a dangerous heresy, and from Roman authorities and others who saw it as a serious threat to a society which placed a premium on everyone worshiping in the same ways, as a unifying patriotic force.

Paul himself had already suffered for his witness for Christ. He would meet his death as a martyr in Rome, something he certainly knew to be a possibility when he wrote this epistle. But he went forward with confidence, and with logic that is, for a committed Christian, unassailable.

God, after all, did not withhold Jesus, but gave him up for our sakes. Then, asks Paul, won’t God give us everything else that we need? It is God who justifies us; it is Christ who intercedes for us.

This phrase is sometimes misconstrued: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” It may not always seem that way to us. It’s hard to reconcile Paul’s statements with the evil we find all around us in the world.

Paul was speaking specifically of the persecution of Christians, and there’s certainly still plenty of that going on in the world. Proportionately, there’s as much of it as there was in Roman times. In terms of sheer numbers, it’s far worse today.

Islamists burn churches and riot against Christians in the faith’s first homes, the Middle East and Egypt. Christians are marked for violence and prosecution in Pakistan and India, while the governments of China and Vietnam seek to control or suppress expressions of Christianity. Christians have been targeted in many parts of Africa; in Sudan alone, it is estimated that 1.5 million Christians have been killed since 1984.

There’s not much overt persecution of Christians in this country, but there are plenty of other things to try our faith. The loss of a job or of a loved one can leave us asking how God could let this happen. We wonder where God is in a natural disaster like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, or in the tornado that struck Joplin.

How do you reconcile “All things work together for good” with an act of human evil like Friday’s horrific murders in Norway? How do you reconcile it with monstrous acts of child abuse? We question God’s love for us when we or someone we love are struck down by an implacable illness, or injured by someone else’s carelessness.

But the Spirit is there to comfort us when we call. Jesus walks with us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

As many of you know, in November I was diagnosed with an aggressive Stage 3 cancer, and received an equally aggressive treatment for it.

There was a period of several weeks last winter when I became horribly sick, when my doctors didn’t know what to do, when I realized that I might well die. In my darkest moments, I felt God’s presence; I felt God’s light and love. I knew then that all would be well, whatever happened to my body.

The Love of God is always there for the asking, even when we don’t have the words. The Love of God is always with us to sustain us and comfort us, even when we don’t get the answers we desire.

And it is God’s love of which Paul is writing here. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” The short version of the answer to that is that no one can separate us, no circumstances can come between us, unless we ourselves allow it to happen.

The power of the love of God gives us strength to keep going through the most difficult times. The brilliance of the love of God gives us light to find our way through the darkest passages. The creator of all that is, from the tiniest particles to the grandest galaxies, God still cares for each of us, giving us Jesus as intercessor and the Holy Spirit as comforter, with a love that is larger than this universe. And there is nothing at all that can separate us from that love.

Lord, help us to know your everlasting love in our most joyous moments and in our times of grieving, to remember that you support us in sickness and in health, and that we are called to love and praise you in return. This we ask in our Lord Jesus Christ’s name. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Nuked

I’m nearly through the third and final stage of my cancer treatment. Five mornings each week I leave the house at a little past 7, drive to the hospital, and get nuked.

Radiation oncology is just down the hall from the chemotherapy infusion center, but the two are very different; instead of sitting for hours with an IV drip, I’m in and out in less than 20 minutes.

The machine that zaps me is the medical equivalent of a combination fax-phone-printer: It takes X-rays, sends the images to the technicians, and then delivers a dose of carefully calibrated, carefully aimed radiation to my breast.

I receive it while lying on a hard narrow board, my head on a sort of padded doughnut, my arms above my head in special frames. My job is to lie very still, something that’s easier if I don’t think about it.

The radiation burns my skin and makes me tired. If I’d had it first I’d have groused about the side effects, but my attitudes about what’s difficult have changed considerably since chemo.

In a matter of days it will all be over. Meanwhile, thin fine hair like an infant’s is sprouting atop my head, giving me hope that I’ll soon have enough to comb ; the beginnings of eyebrows have appeared, and my eyelashes are almost back to normal.

“This time next year, it will just be a bad memory,” say well-meaning acquaintances. Perhaps, but the cancer has changed me forever,  physically,  spiritually, and emotionally. I will never take my life and abilities for granted again, nor the lives of those around me. This life is a great gift from God. I intend to use it wisely.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The pathology report

The phone rang just after noon on Sunday. It was my surgeon, a man as kind as he is skillful: “Your pathology report found its way to my office over the weekend,” he said, “and I didn’t want to make you wait any longer for the results.”

I suspect he also wanted the pleasure of personally delivering the unalloyed good news that the cancer was dead and gone, so thoroughly departed that only microscopic traces of the tumor remained in tissues that once harbored five deadly centimeters of pure ugly aggressive malignancy. The tissue margins were clear. The lymph nodes were clear. The chemo worked, and all of the struggles of the last six months were worthwhile.

My oncologist has used words like “astounding” and “amazing” to describe the tumor’s response to treatment right from the start. The chemo worked, but I believe there’s more to it than that.

The other thing working on the tumor from the beginning was prayer: the prayers of family, friends, and colleagues, the prayers of my own parish and my father’s, prayers offered by other churches, synagogues, and religious communities, the prayers of online friends and people I don’t know.

My mother used to say that she could feel it when people prayed for her. I feel it too, a kind of lightening and buoying up, a reassurance of the love, faith, and concern of others.

Attempts by researchers to study the effects of prayer on the sick have, unsurprisingly, yielded mixed results, and I do not pretend to know why some prayers are answered and others don’t seem to be. For now, I am simply grateful for the knowledge and skill of my doctors and nurses, and for the mercy of God in this miraculous gift of healing.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

 

Ending/Beginning

Lord Jesus, think on me
Amid the battle’s strife:
In all my pain and misery
Be Thou my Health and Life.

– Synesius of Cyrene (375?-414?)

In November I began a journey that I knew – from the instant I saw the expression on the doctor’s face as he recognized the symptoms – would alter my life. This week I completed the first and most difficult leg of that journey: after 21 weeks, I finished chemotherapy.

The cancer that attacked me is brutal; the odds of long-term survival are not great. The treatment to fight it has to match. I lost my hair, I lost weight. I lost a month of my life when my body, for unknown reasons, rejected the port through which my blood was drawn and my treatment infused, making me sicker than I’ve ever been. I move slowly; I think slowly. My nose bleeds incessantly. My fingers and toes are numb. Nothing about me feels quite right, for the chemo has affected every cell.

It’s been a rough passage, but it’s also been a successful one. My tumor shrank almost miraculously, from five menacing centimeters replete with crab-like claws, down to a fragmentary two. Its remains will be removed early next month; a few weeks later, I’ll begin radiation treatments. By summer’s end, it will be all over but the recovery.

In another sense,though, it will never be over. For the rest of my life, this will be the defining element of my medical résumé, affecting everything from insurance to future treatments. There is always the chance that it will return.

And yet I’ve found a new sense of peace, a new sense of acceptance, despite all the painful challenges of the last few months. I have had active support and assistance from an amazing array of friends, and the prayers and encouragement of many more. That, as much as the excellent medical care I’ve received, has brought me through.

I’m dubious of claims that human losses or human suffering are “a part of God’s plan.” I am certain that God gives us strength and courage when we ask. If we suffer, we do not suffer alone, for God is with us. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Lord Jesus, think on me,
That when the flood is past,
I may the Eternal Brightness see,
And share Thy joy at last.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The women’s group

My parish has two women’s groups. One is a traditional daytime group, specializing in lunch, interesting speakers, and good works. The other is for women who work.

It’s called the Evening Women’s Association of St. Peter’s, although I still yearn for the second choice name, The Velvet Undercroft. Most of us are Baby Boomers, with a few fellow travelers leavening the mix. We meet on one Friday night per month.

Some meetings have set programs. Some are loose, and I – often unable to drive places lately – recently volunteered my house as a meeting place for one of the latter.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, despite my current physical weakness; the house was clean, and all I really needed to do was a little setup – with a lot of help from my best friends – and make some mulled wine.

Then I realized that I hadn’t considered the work involved in cleanup. Oh, well: It would get done when it got done.

These were thoughtful guests: early on, Ann asked, “What time do you need us to leave?” I usually tire out a little before 9, I replied. She nodded crisply.

It was a lovely evening, with a good group filling the family room, eating and drinking and making comfortable conversation. Then, a little before 9, Ann announced, “Okay, now we’re going to clean up.”

They moved into the kitchen, dealt with leftovers, pitched the trash, tossed the recyclables into the bin, then moved onto the dirty dishes, making light work of it all. Then, with cheery goodbyes, they headed out.

When you’re sick, the little things mean a lot. All those who help are a blessing – and, this night, that meant those who gave me a much-needed social evening, and even cleaned up the mess.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Playing the game

Some people maintain that life is a game. I’ve never subscribed to that concept, but it does seem to me that cancer treatment is a lot like a board game: you throw the dice, you land on a square, and you deal with whatever you’ve been handed that turn.

Unlike, say,  “Monopoly,” where you might have to go directly to jail or pay an exorbitant rent when you land on the wrong square, the rules of “Chemo” may hand you mouth sores or constant nosebleeds, an aversion to salty foods or to coffee, flu-like symptoms or just chronic fatigue. Whether or not to play is not really an option for someone in my situation.

My most recent round dealt me a case of anemia that left me barely able to get out of bed for almost a week. The queasies are always just beneath the surface, like the bass line in the soundtrack of a horror film: sometimes it’s more obvious than others, but it’s never far away. The game of chemo is definitely not for wimps.

It’s much more than a game, of course, and it’s getting results: The progress in shrinking the tumor is, in my oncologist’s word, “astounding.” I have exceeded expectations.

I don’t face either the good news or the difficult aspects by myself. I have the help of loving friends and of a host of medical personnel, of neighbors and colleagues, and I have the love of God to sustain me. It’s all a blessing, the prayers of others wrapping around me as comfortingly as my mother’s arms when I was little.

That support gives me the strength and courage to continue taking my turns in the game, tossing those dice, and accepting whatever square I’ve landed on. It’s a tough game, but I’m not playing alone – and it’s one that, with God’s help, I will win.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: The Peaceable Kingdom

Sermon notes – Advent II, Year A (St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/Ladue, December 5, 2010)

Let’s go back for a moment to this morning’s reading from First Isaiah, to the part that begins, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

When I read this passage yesterday, the thought bubbled into my brain that perhaps Lewis Carroll had it in mind when he wrote about the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland.

Lewis Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, would certainly have known these verses; in addition to being a distinguished mathematician, academic, and author, he was also the son of an Anglican priest, an ordained deacon in the Church of England himself, and a man who took his Bible seriously.

Furthermore, the White Queen is chiefly famous for being able to believe “six impossible things before breakfast,” and I count at least seven apparently impossible things in that passage: Four groups of assorted carnivores and herbivores living together in harmony, two venomous snakes ignoring nature and instinct, and every single one of them obeying frail human infants, and doing exactly what they’re told.

It almost sounds like some kind of Wonderland. But this is a far better place: it is the Peaceable Kingdom, the beginning of a new age that is to be ruled righteously under a new law, with a new King who works through love and freely given obedience – not through fear.

This vision of the Peaceable Kingdom brings together dangerous beasts and tame ones, and permits them to live in harmony. Their essential natures may not be changed, but they will learn to control those natures, to dwell together in justice wherever the new King rules.

The vision is no guarantee that the Peaceable Kingdom will come about in all the world – but it is about the opportunity for peace and a new way of approaching things for those who are open to such change.

And so it is also an ideal text for a Sunday in early Advent, before we get down to the details of the birth of Jesus – angelic visitations and Joseph’s issues and various aspects of the unpleasantness of the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Peaceable Kingdom gives us a vision of what life could be if we follow Christ.

The beginning of the passage presents us with a new shoot from an old tree, that new king from the branch of David. He will judge the poor and deal in righteousness, and maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward wickedness and injustice.

From there we have the wonderful passage that brings together predator and prey in peace, and the promise that “the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”

As I read it, this kingdom will not come about by conquest. It will be a voluntary association. We will have a choice to join together with God – or not – in God’s kingdom. This is the antithesis of the Roman Empire, so harshly marked by force and cruelties. This is an opportunity to be a part of the Kingdom of Love.

That makes this passage the truest prophecy of the coming of Christ. For, as it turned out, the Messiah did not come as everyone had confidently hoped and expected – a mighty warrior, sweeping all before him, conquering as the Romans and the Babylonians and the Assyrians had conquered, putting the faces of all enemies of Israel into the dust.

Instead, he came as a frail and vulnerable baby. He came, in fact, much like the little child in the passage from Isaiah, surrounded by enemies and dangers.

Jesus did not make all things right for his people in an instant. He worked with them as individuals or in small groups. He forced nothing on them; he asked for their faith, trust, and belief in him. He healed them, he comforted them, he gave them hope and salvation.

Two millennia later, Jesus still offers us every hope and comfort but forces nothing on us – and two millennia later, some people are still surprised by the nature of God’s kingdom.

Jesus still asks for our faith and trust and belief. That, of course, can be a challenge. Like all those who had certain firm ideas about what the Messiah would be and do 2,000 years ago, we still have our own set concepts about how we, as faithful Christians, should find the world working today. We may still find ourselves confounded by the necessity of believing six impossible things before breakfast.

I was recently diagnosed with inflammatory carcinoma, a rare and aggressive breast cancer. I have excellent medical care, a strong community of support, and a firm faith in God’s love and care. I believe that this can be beaten.

In a way, it seems right that I learned of it just before Advent, the season of new beginnings, new changes, new hopes. As those who yearned for a powerful Messiah in Roman times learned, those changes may not take the forms that we expect – but God is in them.

I am entering this new Church Year in a spirit of seeking, of trying to trust and to accept what’s ahead for me. I am trying to look at all things in a new way, from the familiarity of ancient scriptures to the beauty of the just-born.

It may not always be completely obvious to us, but, in the words of the sermon hymn, “For the glory of the Lord now o’er earth is shed abroad; and all flesh shall see the token that the word is never broken.” Lord, give us the vision to see your new creation.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving means different things to different people: family reunions, a few really good hymns that we hear only once a year, tons of traditions, gluttony that’s not only sanctioned but encouraged, and, for many, the beginning of the Christmas season.

Oh, yes – and then there’s the original purpose of the holiday: giving thanks to God for blessings received.

For me, this Thanksgiving didn’t seem to promise much. The family members who usually join us are unable to travel this year, and my recent diagnosis of breast cancer certainly put a damper on things.

Inflammatory carcinoma comes in only two flavors, Stage III and Stage IV: “nasty but curable” and “nasty and incurable.” It’s a systemic cancer, one which was invariably fatal until fairly recently, when someone hit on the idea of doing chemotherapy first and surgery later, instead of vice versa. So it was a huge relief to learn on Wednesday that mine is Stage III. (Everything is relative.)

That’s one blessing and occasion for thanks, and it’s a big one. But even greater than that is the huge, unexpected wave of love and kindness that has enveloped me from all sides: scores of encouraging messages from Facebook friends and colleagues at the paper; gentle assistance from nurses, technicians and doctors; meals cooked and delivered, rides to the doctor, cards, encouraging words, and generous gifts of time.

And there is prayer, spreading like ripples in a pond, from those who first heard my diagnosis to those  who just learned of it, on church prayer lists, through the Ship of Fools, from New Zealand to the UK to North America. Christian, Jewish and Muslim friends are praying for me, former colleagues at Lyric Opera of Chicago are “praying praying praying,” and a telephone representative for my health insurance company volunteered that she would keep me in her prayers.

For the love and concern of friends, the determination and wisdom of medicos, for the gifts of time, music, books, and good humor, I give thanks to God.  I won’t make it to church to sing those beloved hymns; for the first time since I was six years old, I’m not responsible for any part of the feast. But this Thanksgiving, I am more truly grateful than ever before.

– Sarah Bryan Miller