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"As far as I'm concerned you are in remission." Those were the doctor's words today when we got the results of yesterday's PET/CT scan. According to the report I am "PET negative," which means there are no signs of cancer activity in my body. (I'm also "pet negative" when it comes to cats and dogs but that's for another time.)
If you dig down into the details, it's a little more mysterious. My spleen is slightly enlarged and has the doctors wondering what's going on there. It's a centimeter smaller now than when we started chemo. The bottom line is that I may have a splenectomy in my future just to be sure there are no rogue cancer cells hiding out there, but there is no definitive evidence of any cancer activity in the spleen. It will be something to keep an eye on in future scans.
The CT scan shows that the tumor in my shoulder has gone from being quite large to being a small little thing. Because the PET scan shows no metabolic activity in that area the doctor believes that what is left over is scar tissue. We'll do preventative radiation therapy on that to make sure the scar tissue is clean of cancer cells.
All in all, it's a great report and a relief. The treatment is working which gives me a much needed boost for the four remaining five-day rounds of chemo in the hospital. We still have a ways to go and there are some mysteries to be solved ahead but we feel very blessed tonight.
Cancer Update: "You know what they usually use this room for, don't you." That was the nurses response to my many exclamations about how nice the room is for this week's stay at the hospital.
(Yes, I'm back for another week of chemo at Sacred Heart hospital. I'm working on a streak of spending 3 of 5 weeks dancing with a shopping-cart-wheeled tower of tubes and machines.)
Unlike the many other sterile, fluorescent cubicles I've been assigned to in past weeks, this spacious room has faux hardwoods and carpet, earth-toned wallpaper, and even it's own fridge and microwave. The soft lights paint the room in a soothing glow. They call it the suite, and, being a pastor, I know exactly what they "use" this room for.
This is the room where people go to die.
When the chemo wing of the hospital is full they use this hospice room to handle the overflow. I am truly delighted for a peaceful space but I confess to a slight hesitation lying down on this bed that has been the final resting place for so many. I've sat around beds like this dozens of times; holding hands, offering prayers, shedding tears, but I've never climbed in one and pulled over the covers.
Ever since my doctor muttered the words “tumor” and “cancer,” it seems like death has been a constant companion. The first thing I did when I got home from the doctor was to check my life insurance policy to make sure it was current. In those first weeks of crisis, when we didn’t know if a cure was possible, I was haunted by the question, “What if this is it?” My well-worn defenses keeping death at a safe distance were shattered. It’s been the most unsettling experience of my life.
But here’s the thing, now that the crisis has settled down and we’re hopeful for a cure, and the chaotic rhythms of those early days have given way to the odd boredom of treatment, there is part of that initial brush with death that I don’t want to let go of.
I was talking to a 15-year cancer survivor friend about this and he surprised me by saying, “I know exactly what you mean.” We talked about how there is something about staring one’s own death squarely in the face that clarifies and empowers. It peels away frivolous layers of fear and anxiety, it puts things in perspective, it awakens you to the beauty of being alive, and it’s something worth holding onto.
Ann Lamott writes about an encounter with this clarity in a conversation with her dear friend Pammy who was dying of breast cancer. Ann was trying on clothes that she hoped would impress her boyfriend and turned to Pammy in her wheelchair for advice, “I asked whether it made me look big in the hips, and Pammy said, as clear and kind as a woman can be, “Annie? You really don’t have that kind of time.” (Traveling Mercies) Lamott marks it among the most important bits of wisdom in her journey toward faith and sobriety.
It’s the kind of wisdom that I want to hold onto from this experience with cancer. I’m not so worried about how my hips look, but I have a long list of other frivolous worries that the fresh truth of my someday-death is freeing me of. I just don’t have that kind of time.
So I welcome my week-long sojourn in the hospice suite. It’s a good reminder that I’ll be back someday, hopefully 50 years from now. And somehow that’s helping me this week transform this room where people go to die into a room where I come to live - more abundantly, more generously, more beautifully, more lovingly, more peacefully.
Cancer Update: I'm back in the hospital getting chemo number 2 of 6. Feeling good so far. It's been a day of serendipities.
1. It turns out my nurse for the day read my book and is a fan. She said, "I've never met an author before." I think that was God's way of strengthening my immune system for the 101 hours of continuous chemotherapy. Nothing like a little ego boost to to get your white cells fired up.
2. The winning pitcher in tonight's World Series, Jon Lester, is a Lymphoma survivor. This could either mean I have a future in Major League Baseball or I've got a good shot at beating this. I'm open to both possibilities.
3. Sacred Heart hospital just launched a new computer system called "EPIC" and my cancer regimen is called "EPOCH". I'm thinking this points to the totally epic new epoch in my life post cancer diagnosis.
4. Unfortunately, a beloved member of our church, Bob Sheppard, had a heart attack on Sunday morning and is in the ICU here at Sacred Heart. He and his family are literally about 50 steps away from my chemo cave. (With the help of the elevator.)
One of the challenges of being sidelined by cancer is that I've been unable to provide pastoral care to some families in our church in the midst of major crises. It's a strange blessing to know I will be able walk closely with Bob and his family this week in their time of need. It's amazing how caring for others puts your own trials in perspective.
They might need to add another letter "P" to my chemo regimen.
In another related serendipity, Pop-tarts also begin with "P". I've improvised them into the treatment. This is my version of holistic/alternative medicine.
5. And the final serendipity is that I finally opened all the cards from friends and family and I got to behold the card from the Comellas. See the attached picture. They say your hair comes in different after chemo. I'm rooting for the lower left Keith Richards look.
On October 4 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Here's my update from October 23.
"Wow, you used to have a lot more hair. When was that picture taken?" That was the comment the retail clerk at Sears made when she saw the shaggy-haired picture on my credit card. I'm new to this whole cancer thing so I made the mistake of saying, "Yeah, I just started chemo." That's not such a great conversation starter. It's almost as awkward as telling a stranger you're a pastor.
The sales woman did her best to respond to my revelation, drawing on her experience with a cousin who had cancer. The words came out in a careening run-on sentence,
"I'm sorry to hear that, my cousin had cancer, it was really hard, but it went into remission and we even had a party to celebrate when he was cured,
but then the cancer came back, it was really terrible, and he died..."
You could almost hear the background conversation in her head, "I really want to be helpful, but this isn't going well. Oh no, I'm crashing and burning here. Pull up! Pull up! Goose, I can't reach the ejection handle"
I'm not absolutely sure the Top Gun references came into play but you get the idea. The plane crashed and Goose was dead and my new salesperson friend was Maverick, left floating in the crash debris wondering where things went wrong.
She assured me that technology has come a long way and that I probably will be fine, but I left the conversation resolved to not bring up my cancer with strangers. Most people just don't know how to deal with it.
Knowing this has made me that much more grateful for the church. For all of the church's idiosyncracies and shortcomings, we know how to navigate the awkward truth of our mortality. Sickness and healing, mucking through the "slimy pit" and finding a rock to stand on (Psalm 40), complaining that our way is hidden from the Lord and flying on eagles wings (Isaiah 40) are the rhythms that animate our worship and work. God is not imagined by the congregation as a magical escape from the brokenness of the world, rather through the incarnation of Jesus we are anchored in the truth that God has entered in and walks alongside.
A reporter asked me yesterday if my cancer diagnosis has shaken my faith. I said, "Who am I to think that I am somehow exempt from the injustices of the world. I don't understand why it's happening but I know that God is with me in it, and, if anything, that has strengthened my faith."
My cancer may be awkward for others, but not so much for me. I'm scared and angry and confused but I am buoyed by the ordinary grace of local congregational life, where we walk together in the truth of death and resurrection.
In other news, I am a one-man drain-plugging machine right now. All of my hair is falling out. I'm glad to be shedding nose and back hair, but I'm going miss my eyebrows and eyelashes. Hopefully our pipes will survive all the Dran-O they will process in the coming weeks.
I'm feeling great this week. Gearing up to start chemo again on Monday and will be in the hospital through Friday of next week. Looking forward to killing more cancer cells.
Photo: I finally felt good enough this week to get out with my camera. This shows Spokane Falls adorned in fall colors.
On October 4 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. I'm going to start migrating some of my ongoing reflections to this blog.
Here's the update from October 17.
I've been out of the hospital now for a week and the chemo fog has lifted. I had my first full night’s sleep in over month last night. Instead of waking up at 1:00 a.m. to medicate some ache or pain I woke up to the sounds of Nancy yelling at the kids to get out of bed for early-morning jazz band practice.
“Noel! Lily! Get out of bed. I mean it this time. I need you in the bathroom.” Five minutes go by. “Are you guys awake?! Come on. I really mean it this time. You have to wake up.” “OK MOM! JEESH!” Five minutes go by. “Are you out of your bed? Oh my goodness…” And so it goes. One downside to feeling better and getting a full night’s sleep is that I will soon be re-enlisted as the morning bouncer to physically drag the kids out of bed.
It’s been two days since I took a pill for anything, thank goodness. I have so many pill bottles in my book bag that I sound like the maraca section of a mariachi band when I carry it anywhere.
I’ve even been to the gym twice to get on the treadmill and do some light circuit training. I’m going so slow and lifting so little weight that I feel a little self-conscious. Maybe I need a T-shirt that explains to the others in the gym, “I work out like a 90-year-old because I have cancer.”
My first trip to the gym was precipitated by frustration. Just as my intestinal distress was subsiding I was struck by debilitating lower back spasms. Instead of lying on the couch in discomfort I got up in a fit of angry defiance and went to work out. I spent 40 minutes on the elliptical and felt good, other than some back pain. When I got home Noel asked me what I was doing and I responded with bravado, “I was at the gym kicking cancer’s butt.”
It was an empowering moment but that soon gave way to back spasms that were so bad I couldn’t hardly breathe. I spent the majority of that night slumped over an ottoman like I’d been washed ashore by a huge wave. It was the only position that provided some relief. To make matters worse, when we went to the doctor the following morning he recommended we get an MRI of the lower back to see if it was being caused by a mass.
What? We had just gotten a handle on the extent of the cancer, and now this? I wasn’t prepared for more scans and more question marks about my diagnosis.
So much for my triumphant efforts to conquer cancer by vigorous joint-friendly stepping on the elliptical. Thankfully the back spasms went away as quickly as they arrived and concerns about a lower-back mass have subsided.
My little failed foray into “kicking cancer’s butt” has got me thinking that defiant anger and metaphorical battles are not the most constructive ways forward. I need to fight this cancer but I can’t let this turn into a fight against my own body.
This summer I studied the history of asceticism in the Christian church around food and I learned that too often food practices fell into this trap. Fasting became an effort to starve and punish uncooperative desires and tame the messy materiality of the body. Even if we’re not familiar with the history of the early church we are all familiar with instincts that lead us to battle our overweight, not-attractive-enough, fatigued, breaking-down bodies.
The early church spent considerable energy pushing back against these tendencies toward self-hatred and promoted a much more grace-filled approach. They envisioned food practices as a way to wake people up to the sacred wholeness of life; body and soul, soil and table, hunger and pleasure. They were means of holy cooperation that promoted healing and wholeness. Those are the kind of practices I need right now and that’s the approach that will serve me best.
There will be plenty of anger and frustration on the road ahead but I’m not going to turn that against myself or my cancer-riddled body. I’ll aim for practices that are energized by faith, hope, and love, and an approach that is built on the foundation of grace and humility.
I returned to the gym last night for my second outing. I settled for 30 minutes on the treadmill walking like a limp noodle and a couple pulls on the machines. I went home, had a beer and called it a night. Gone were the grand visions of kicking cancer in the behind, but unlike my previous outing I slept like a baby.
The most interesting section in Theology on the Menu, thus far, is the review of early U.S. history where Christian leaders were on the forefront of the healthy food movements. The authors highlight the religious justifications for 19th century justifications for vegetarianism, whole foods diets, and healthy eating.
For example Dr Sylvester Graham was a Presbyterian minister who spoke out against the delitorious effects of white bread and advocated for breads made from whole grains. He came up with his own healthy flour mix made with whole-wheat flour, bran, and wheat germ from which he developed the well known cracker that bears his name. Along with being healthy he claimed that the dryness of Graham Crackers curbed sexual urges, both of which modern civilization has counteracted by adding chocolate and marshmallows to make S'mores.
In another example of the strong historic connection between early health food movements and Christian faith the book highlights the development of corn flakes. John Harvey Kellogg was the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitortium, health center and headquarters of the Seventh Day Adventists who were strong advocates of vegeterianism. This close relationship gave birth to Kellog's breakfast cereals and the iconic corn flakes. Once again, modern America has taken this historic holy urge for health and added lots of sugar to transform them into Frosted Flakes.
These are just two examples of many that point to the strong religious roots of modern food movements, but that really shouldn't be a surprise. Many secular food passions have an implicit, if not explicit, spiritual vibe. From vegans to raw foodites, to localists and bacon evangelists, there is something more going on than just calorie counts and fat content. These dietary regimens point to a way of life and possess hints of the meaning of it all.
I'm in the reading and studying phase of my sabbatical and one the my questions as I approach the reading is, "What happened to Christian food practices?"
Food is a prominent topic in the Bible and through much of church history but food seems to play a minor role in the lived faith of the Western Church, in great contrast to a secular culture that has passionately embraced food practices. My ultimate question relates to how the modern expressions of the church might embrace food practices but before I get to that I'm simply wondering what happened. Why is there such an absence of practical guidance around food as an expression of faith in today's church.
Here are some choice quotes and observations from this book thus far:
Referencing Clement of Alexandria's attitude toward food in his work on Christian ethics, The Instructor, "Among the skills of cookery, Clement singles out for special criticism the 'useless art of making pastry' which, he contends, vitiates the tastebuds and imperils moral discretion. Based on my experience with doughnuts I think he might have a point.
Benedict's Rule offers a more positive attitude toward food. According to the Rule the cellarer is required to "look on all the monastery's cooking utensils 'as upon the sacred vessels of the altar."
As a Protestant I was surprised to read about Calvin's argument that the Lenten fast was not "divinely inaugurated" and that Jesus' 40 days of fasting at the beginning of his ministry was not a model for followers to emulate during the 40 days of Lent. According to Calvin, "It was therefore merely fasle zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ."(p. 30-31)
The book points out that the Reformation did not automatically lead to the end of fasting and food rules in the Protestant expressions of the church, but Calvin and others planted the seeds of suspicion that continue to shape the Protestant attitude toward fasting.
One line of argument they make in the book that I find especially intriguing is that certain rhythms of food practices, especially the Lenten fast, arose out of the context of the rhythms of nature. For example, during the late winter and early spring when meat was most scarce they abstained from meat as part of the regimen of Lent. It was seasonal eating incorporated into the church calendar and Christian conscience.
The authors highlight this perspective as a neglected approach to the topic that deserves more attention, and I agree.
In their chronicling of the early church the authors highlight the debates about sex and food. Many argued that lust was the source of all sin, but there were many who posited that gluttony was the granddaddy of all vices. Gregory the great argued that the moral path began with the "fight against gluttony" and this logic led many to conclue that fasting was the most important and valuable practice in the monastic life.
A cursory glance at debates in modern churches it seems clear that sex won out over gluttony as the most important moral issue, but perhaps it would be worth returning to this debate and giving gluttony another look. I can't remember hearing the topic gluttony ever mentioned in church debates about morality and ethics.
Feel free to chime in if you have thoughts about what happened to Christian food practices. I'll share more from the reading as I progress.
Took this picture at Schwabacher Landing in the Tetons earlier this summer.
“I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is....It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders;
we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence.
It is our daily bread.
Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle.
We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes,”
Tulip heads are cleaned off the plants at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
As I prepared for a week of eating only wild-foraged foods there was a lot of chatter online about the recent popularity of cleanses, where people go for a period of time only drinking juice, or following some other regimen of limited foods that supposedly cleans out impurities from the body. Much of the conversation in recent weeks has been driven by an article by Judith Shulevitz at the New Republic, "Jesus and Moses Went on Cleanses, That doesn't mean you should." The more accurate description of the article is visible in the web URL that titles the piece, "The idiotic-cleanse-craze-and-modern-theology-juice-fasts."
What caught my attention is not just the controversy about the merits of calorie-depriving cleanses, but the strong religious streak to the movement. Shulevitz notes how similar they are to religious fasts and argues that this is really what drives the movement:
...people don’t afflict themselves for their health, or not only for that. I won’t be the first to point out that cleanses look a lot like religious fasts or that people crave the transcendence that comes from self-deprivation.
According to Shulevitz it's an existential acting out in response to a world envisioned as poisoned. In the laymans terms, the world is full of $#@$ and therefore we are a full of $%@#, and cleanses are a way to clean out the you know what. It's original sin reduced to terms that even a middle schooler could understand and some would argue that the movement has the sophistication of junior high boys when it comes to the digestive system. The books apparently spend a lot of time on the topic of defecation.
Most mainstream doctors and scientists are highly critical of the cleanse movement as Shulevitz notes. As a pastor who sat at the bedside of a dead parishioner who chose homeophathic cleanses and diets to cure her cancer instead of chemotherapy I join with those doctors and scientists in their criticism. It is dangerous and irresponsible to make unproven claims about the health benefits and curative powers of diet and herbal remedies. When I see such assertions arise in the organic/slow food/real food conversation it drives me crazy.
But I'm more interested in the spiritual/religious aspects of the movement. Should pastors and theologians be just as skeptical of these pseudo-scientific detox regimens as the doctors and scientists? I don't think so.
Shulevitz is right to identify the movement as primarily an expression of spiritual longing and we in the church ought to take note. Just as we have abandoned fasting as a spiritual practice the void has been filled by pseudo-religious movements that take seriously the real connection between body, mind, and spirit. This is the part the cleansers get right and the church, these days, mostly gets wrong.
I just finished a week of eating wild-foraged foods. Here in the Inland Northwest that means I spent a week eating mostly huckleberries, call it my Huckleberry Cleanse. I didn't go into it with visions of dirty toxins in my intestines. It was a personal challenge and I did have in mind the experience of Israel in the wilderness foraging for manna every day for 40 years.
I have to admit I come away from the experience feeling some affinity for the "Cleaners."
It did reset my body and mind and awaken my spirit in new ways. It did clear my body of the high-salt and high-fat diet I gravitate toward. I did lose 10 pounds and here on the morning after I'm not nearly as hungry as I was a week ago before my foraging began. It's easier for me to concentrate and I feel psychologically in a better place. The first coulple days were a hassle but after that there was a strange peace and quiet that settled on me as I experienced freedom from the tyranny of hungers that clutter my mind. In a sense I feel clean.
I've had a similar awakening every time I've fasted. Last year when I followed the dietary regimen of Ramadan, going daylight hours without food or drink, I felt empowered and peaceful. When our family joined with our local Greek Orthodox congregation for their Advent and Lenten fasts last year we experienced spiritual renewal and a strengthening of family and communal bonds. When we followed the Kosher food laws for a month we experienced renewal in our family life. In my experience, intentional fasting has the potential for spiritual growth and renewal.
It's been an important practice for most of the history of God's people in the Bible and in the Christian church, but in the modern west it has fallen victim to the spirit/body divide imposed on the church by the Enlightenment and modernity. (That's my assessment that I'll flesh out more later.) Not even Catholics do fish Fridays anymore and Protestants are mostly left to our own whims when it comes to Lent. We're missing out.
Shulevitz is wrong. "Jesus and Moses Went on Cleanses," and we should to.
The church in the west would do well to listen to the spiritual longings expressed by those who are turning to colonics and cleanses for help in this crazy fragmented world we live in. They are looking to put the pieces together, body, mind, and spirit. What does the church have to offer them? We have a treasure trove of resources if we dig a little into our history, and it's not based on scatologically obsessed pseudo-science, it's based on the Bible, on the life of Jesus, and on the experience of the early church.
And contrary to the Cleanse movement these practices lead us to embrace the body as good and holy, as sacred space.
(This post is part of an ongoing inquiry into food practices in the church supported by a grant from the Louisville Institute. Find out more about the Tables of Plenty Project here.)