The God of Cancer

Today is one of those days where Death lurks in the shadows. Two people I dearly love have called me to share their fear, anger, and hurt over a loved one who's gotten the least welcome news: "We've done all we can do. It's time to get your affairs in order."

Cancer is one of Death's most indiscriminate emissaries, all too willing to snatch good people in the prime of life. It's one thing to ask, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" It's another to watch a loved one fade to the end through pain.

Watching someone suffer like this focuses all our confusion about God. Why does God ignore our prayers? Why does He turn a deaf ear to our pleas asking for healing? Where is our help?

We shake our fists at the sky. We weep and break into little pieces. Our refrain begins as a angry shout and ends as a whispered sob, "Oh my God, where are you?"

This question is one of the central themes of the Bible. You hear it in the story of a tribe of slaves in Egypt, and in the same tribe later lost in the desert. Job finally asks it when his life is broken so much he can't see any way back to a life worth living. Israel asks as its kings grow corrupt, and then again as it falls into exile. Some books, like Lamentations, don't try to answer the question at all.

It's sometimes so dark we can't remember the light.

The Bible's answer surprises me. We're sent a deliverer, God in the form of a man. He's faced with the same suffering and loss that we are.

His response is to weep.

We ask for a God to come in power and glory and clean up this mess. Instead, we're sent a Son who says to forgive, and to turn the other cheek. We're told to lay down our lives for our friends, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We ask, "Oh my God, where are you," and God says, "I'm right here with you, broken too." God's response to brokenness is to be broken.

The New Testament doesn't take the riddle of suffering and loss and tie them up with a bow. Instead, we're invited to make things better, to feed the sheep. We're instructed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.

It's as if God tells us that, yes, things are broken. Life hurts. Now, let's work on it together. You will find strength in being weak, you will be first by being last. In other words, God is there with us when we sacrifice our own gain to help others who've lost.

So, what about cancer? What about such senseless suffering? I don't know why we suffer so. But I've caught a glimpse of insight.

I remember the last time I held my grandmother's hand. She was a light in the darkness for my family, a lamp we all gathered around. We've never been closer to each other than those moments in which we watched her flame flicker and then go dark.

As we fell into the darkness, the Hands of God showed up in the words and deeds of His followers. That little funeral home in the country could not hold all the light that showed up in the darkest moment our family faced.

I found God there, grieving with us.

photo credit: .janu via photopin cc

Disquiet Time Q&A with Cathleen Falsani

Hello everyone,

A bunch of my friends and some other people I admire have a book coming out tomorrow. It's called Disquiet Time, and it's a collection of devotional essays that are frank, irreverent, skeptical, and honest. If you've ever rolled your eyes while reading a Bible Study, this is the book for you. I've read it, and I learned a lot. I also found it inspirational. You can learn more about the book and place your preorder here.

Cathleen Falsani is not only a dear friend, but also one of the people who have been most instrumental in the book I'm working on. She and I discuss Disquiet Time below.

Disquiet Time Book Cover

Disquiet Time Book Cover

Me: Daily “quiet time” is widely viewed as a pillar of spiritual growth and maturity in modern Christianity. What inspired you to shake up such hallowed ground in Disquiet Time?

Cathleen: You know, it honestly started as a joke between Jen and me stemming from the fact that, despite growing up in and around a religious milieu where “quiet time” was de rigeur, neither one of us had ever been particularly good at it. If memory serves, we discussed how nervous-making that requisite “quiet time” was and how much of the time, in our experience, it was anything but spiritually/emotionally/mentally “quiet.”

Hence “disquiet,” which is, I believe, if we’re truly honest about it, the experience many of us have when we study or reflect on the Bible. It’s not to knock “quiet time,” it’s simply to cast it in a different, and for many of us more genuine, light. If you read the Bible - really  read it - there’s a lot in there that’s confounding, unsettling, and, yes, disquieting. And that’s OK. That’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.

Me: Disquiet Time has an impressive and diverse set of contributors. What did you learn about God as you compiled these essays into a single tome?

Cathleen: The macro-level lesson for me, at least, was just what we say at the end of our introduction: God is BIG and God can take it. You can’t “do it wrong” if you’re honestly and open-heartedly engaging with holy writ. If you have questions, ask them. If you have complaints, voice them. I remember Elie Wiesel telling me once about how he still reads and studies the Bible every day and that he has lots of questions and complaints and that he expresses them, to God. Professor Wiesel told me that there’s a great tradition in Judaism (and the Bible was their’s first, obviously, so it’s not a bad tradition to perpetuate) of prophets shaking their fist at God. Rather than storm off offended in a huff, God engages with the questions and the complaints. God wants a relationship with us, warts and all. So bring your doubts, fears, joys, hopes, misunderstandings - all of it - bring it with you when you are with the Bible. It’s OK. You have permission. Really. We promise.

Me: Is there a place for cynicism or skepticism in the lives of Christians?

Cathleen: Whether there’s “a place” for it or not, it’s there. I guess the question is should it be? And I think skepticism - questioning the veracity of “truth” that’s taken for granted in some quarters - finds purchase in the Christian mind and that’s probably healthy. Just because the status quo or prevailing culture or zeitgeist says something is so doesn’t mean it is. To question that is not a bad thing. Cynicism, on the other hand, is, at least to my mind, corrosive. Cynicism is a posture that says people are motivated by self interest, period. To view the world that way is a pretty dark place to live. Constantly starting from a place of general mistrust doesn’t reflect the hope, grace, and mercy that Christians by definition embrace.

And while we’re at it, a word about doubt: Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is certainty. Or as St. Freddie of Rupert (aka Frederick Buechner) says, “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.”

Me: You're one of the most talented authors I know. Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers who want to get better at the craft?

Cathleen: Write. Keep writing. Write all the time. Write SOMETHING every day. Even if it’s a carefully-worded email. Just do it. And read. Read all the time. Read the work of people you like. Read something that inspires you. Read writers who have cultivated their voice in the way you hope to cultivate yours. Also read something completely different - something outside your comfort zone/realm of expertise/general interests. You never know what will spark the creative fire until you go there. Trust your gut. Find your voice. Get out of your own way.

New, Improved Doubt Series Navigation

Now that I've wrapped up my series on doubt, several people let me know that the old posts were hard to find. To solve that, I've created a new page that lists all the posts on a single page, with brief explanations of what can be found in each post. You can see the whole doubt series here: The Doubt Series.

Faith Lost and Found

I tell my story so much I assume everyone's who follows me has heard it. I live with a near-constant fear that people are tired of hearing the same thing from me over and over (and I'm sure some are). For that reason, I've pushed back on Michael every time he's suggested we do a podcast where I share my story.

So, when Michael suggested an episode where we both share our stories, and in doing so explain the genesis of The Liturgists, that sounded like it would be more interesting to our listeners. I was still worried people would be bored, but I thought that about our Spiral Dynamics episode too.

I was wrong. This episode is generating a lot of messages from people struggling through doubt and fear. Several people have told me that this is our most powerful episode so far.

You can listen to the episode here: The Liturgists Podcast: Faith Lost & Found.