Peace that Transcends All Understanding

When you have cancer or are facing any number of frightening, threatening, tragic or devastating circumstances, it shakes you.  Why?  

Probably because we have some pretty well defined notions of what life is supposed to be like.  We should be healthy.  No one we love should die before they are 90 and then, only peacefully in their sleep.  No one young or good or talented should become ill or injured.  We should not ever be fired.  We should not experience unrequited love.  We should not get fat.  Our beloved goldfish should not go the way of the city water system.  (Well, maybe most of us have come to terms that goldfish have expiration dates.)
But seriously.  We have this idea that if we follow some rules like:
Don’t kill anyone
Don’t steal anything
Don’t cheat
Don’t move someone’s parking space saving chair in Pittsburgh
Don’t say mean things about Aunt Millie even though she is SO awful
…and maybe a few more regarding sex, drugs and listening to Nickleback, we deserve a pain free, tragedy free life.  Where does this garbage come from?  I mean, it’s just simply not true.  Look around you.  I bet you know someone nice and sweet and good who has cancer.  (What? Me? Awwww…thanks.). 
So…if you believe that stuff, I’m asking you to really think about how that belief system holds up.  I don’t think it does for two reasons.  
The first is, umm, reality.  Tragedy befalls the righteous and the wicked just about equally, from where I’m sitting.  Sometimes as a direct consequence of someone’s poor choices and sometimes for reasons we can’t see and must wrestle with.  But there isn’t a naughty and nice list, where the nice escape the tough stuff.
Secondly, The Bible tells us that’s not really how it works.  Look at Job.  And Paul.  They went through crazy scary, bad stuff.  And God loved them an extra special lot.  Think about that.  God allows terrible troubles to fall upon His beloved children.  Weird, huh?
I’ve discussed at length this topic in previous blog entries.  Basically my perspective is that what we tend to experience as “bad” (while it may be terribly painful and not how God originally intended…blame Adam and Eve) God can and will ultimately work it out for our good.  And the point I want to make here is about peace.  I am learning that it is possible to be so confident in God’s loving sovereign nature that one can become virtually unshakable.  Peace that surpasses or transcends all understanding.
I’m not there yet, but I’m growing fast.  I am seeing a new way of looking at difficult circumstances.  Instead of panic, I think “hmm, I wonder what God is up to, here.”  And I watch and I wait and I look eagerly for His hand, for Him moving.
Of course, I still want to take the reins and control this crappy cancer situation like I do with everything else.  I’m quite tempted to say “ok, so the cancer is gone, never to be heard from again and let’s get back to reading books by David Sedaris and worrying about chipped nail polish and if my jeans fit.”  But as tempted as I am to stand up and insist that God turn this wagon around and head for The Gap’s denim sale…the path ahead is the one He chose for me.  It’s terrifying, yes.  But it’s also alluring.  And exciting.  It’s an adventure.  I’m in.  

Outrunning Cancer

Of course you can’t outrun cancer.  But running while you’re attempting to kick the crap out of cancer is an interesting challenge.  I’ve decided to sign up for the Pittsburgh Marathon’s 5k.  This race takes place at the beginning of May.  My treatments end in the middle of April.  So, I have to train now.  While getting chemo.  

I’m exhausted, just thinking about it.  This might be a bad idea.
But it’s not.  Because physical activity, while it feels like the last thing in the world one wants to do, is actually good for cancer patients.  Many simply don’t feel up to it.  I don’t feel up to it.  But I’m going to do it anyway.
Running is hard for me.  Even in optimal health.  I am a woman of some stature and, let’s just say it, boobs.  When I run, it’s not pretty.  I kind of trudge along.  There is a lot of jiggling.  You could probably beat me in a race on a pogo stick.  Or walking fast.  But whatever.  I run.  
Yesterday I ran/walked (mostly walked) one mile.  It was hard.  I was tired. My body protested.  And I’m in the best part of my chemo cycle right now. I am feeling anxious, imagining three days post chemo, shaky and nauseous, climbing onto that treadmill.  But you know what?  I’m going to do it.
Want to help me?  One of the ways I can employ my aversion to public shame as a motivation tool is to invite you to support my effort by making a contribution.  I’m raising funds for the very excellent Light of Life Rescue Mission as I kick cancer, fear and doubt in the backside.  Would you encourage me by making a donation? 
http://www.crowdrise.com/lightoflifepittsburgh2014/fundraiser/jessimarsh
The more money I raise, the more determined I’ll be to cross that finish line even if I have to crawl.  Thanks for your support.  

I matter. So do you.

Yesterday, a group of people did something thoughtful, kind and sacrificially generous.  I was floored.  Later, I thought about how it made me feel.  Like, specifically.  

It made me feel like I matter.  A lot.

Feeling like you matter is such a fundamental need.  Feeling like your existence makes a difference.  That you are loved.  Thought of.  Prayed for.  Over and over, through cards and texts and scarves and shoes and flowers and food and snuggies and everything, I feel like the world is whispering to me over and over and over that I matter.  

It is such a galvanizing, strength giving feeling.  When you have cancer, there are moments where you feel like you’re at the bottom of a well and someone is putting a heavy lid on the opening.  My moments like that are mercifully fleeting because people constantly remind me I’m not alone.  That well isn’t real.  And even if it was, there would be a hundred people tossing ropes down and another hundred who had just said “oh screw it” and jumped down, too.  Just so I wouldn’t be alone.

People I’ve never met are praying for me.  Sending me deeply thoughtful gifts.  And the people I know well…you guys just pour out the love.  In word and deed.  And the really really really close people…it’s a wonder you put up with me, let alone lay aside your needs and wants and priorities to serve me and meet my needs.  Over and over.    

And then I think about how I matter to God.  I matter to The Lord.  The Great I Am.  The Prince of Peace.  Alpha.  Omega.  Christ.  The One who made everything…created you and me and lightning bugs. I matter to Him.  And so do you.  

I read recently that God is my biggest fan.  Like…someone else was in awe that God was their biggest fan.  And I thought “can this be true?”  I mean, he sees the grumpy, undisciplined, unpolished, selfish, uncertain, irritable parts of me.  He knows it all…and he could still somehow be delighted with me?  Well He can.  Because of Jesus.  I don’t know exactly how it all works.  Like if He can’t even notice the bad stuff because my righteousness (through Christ) is so glorious.   Or if He sees it all plain as day but it’s instantly forgiven.  I mean, He knows everything and sees everything.  You know what…true theologian I am not.  I’ll leave it to smarter people to try to explain the whole deal with the biblical principles of forgiveness, justification and propitiation.  (Nerd alert.)

The point is just that I’m freaking amazed that people love me like they do.  So I’m kind of astounded that God could possibly even like me.  Let alone love me.  Let alone leave the rest of the flock to go find me…the dumb sheep who wandered off to munch on some yummy-looking clover down the lane.  The only thing the sheep is responsible for is to follow the shepherd.  Because…you know, wolves and whatnot.  And yet…off we go on our own way.  

More than ever, I just want to snuggle up to the shepherd.  Because I matter to Him.  And that’s what matters most.  

You can snuggle in with us.  There’s room.

A Field Guide for navigating Christmas

My heart is grateful.  Yes, I have cancer.  And I’m getting chemo.  But Christmas is still awesome.  Santa is still coming.  🙂  Still, Jesus was born.  And God is on His throne in heaven.  He is worthy of our trust despite these challenging bumps in the road.  He makes us strong when we are weak.  He provides just what is needed.  Even when that isn’t what it seems like. 

So, when the dog bites, the bee stings, the Scotch tape gets all stuck together, the piece of wrapping paper you cut is too small, your kids are being jagoffs and don’t appreciate anything, the phone will not quit ringing, you burn the turkey, someone else gives your kid the gift you couldn’t wait to give him (oh, no she did NOT!) you forgot the asparagus (that’s a real thing I did) Aunt Martha says something rude about your daughter’s hair, Uncle John has had too much egg nog.  You spill wine on your white shirt, that stupid inflatable snowman will NOT cooperate, someone points out you’ve put on a few pounds.  You’ve run out of money, you’ve run out of breadcrumbs, gas and baby wipes and you’re about to run out of patience…we’ve all been there.  
Breathe.  Acknowledge the frustration.  Notice if you can improve the situation or if it’s outside your control. Fix it if you can.  If not, let it go, move on.  Now stop.  Look around the room until you begin to see the good: your kids enjoying each other and sharing toys.  A hard working hostess flawlessly serving her guests, a gift given out of love and generosity.  New love.  Old love.  Delicious cookies. A teenager helping his grandmother.  Warm glow from the fireplace.  Togetherness despite our differences.   
So, quit your bitchin’.  Look for the good.  It’s right in front of you, Silly.  God is on His throne.  You are blessed.  And you are loved.  

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Getting things done around the holidays when you’re healthy is enough of a challenge.  This is my 35th Christmas season and things are a little different.  I bring you…Christmas splendor: the chemo version.

Sleigh bells ring…are you kidding me?!  I don’t know who is making that racket but Mommy is trying to sleep because she was up three times last night maybe almost but not quite having to barf.  So. Shhhh!  Shush!  Everyone just please knock it off with the sleigh bells.
In the lane, snow is glistening…crap.  Snow means cold.  And cold means crazy neuropathy hands!  If I have to walk more then a block in the cold during the bad chemo week…it’s kind of horrible.  My hands and feet go numb and my bronchial tubes spasm.  It’s a carousel of delights, for sure.  
In the meadow we can build a snowman…are you nuts!? I can’t touch snow.  My hands will fall off. 
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…so far, Christmas looks like me hurrying through the mall sweating profusely because I have so many freaking layers on to protect me from the cold. Sweating, vaguely nauseous, seething with rage at the woman ahead of me with seven different Macy’s coupons. It’s real cute.
Bring us some figgy pudding…or anything about egg nog…good heavens.  Stop.  I will puke directly on you.  I’ll do it.  
Here comes Santa Claus…nope.  He’d better not be on his way yet.  You just wait right there, Sir.  I am So not ready.  It takes me twice as long to do everything!!  Sometimes my fingers are paralyzed.  So wrapping gifts is like an immunity challenge on Survivor.
I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus…damned right.  Because “Santa” is basically doing everything.  Like baking the cookies while I sit on the couch with this:
…so it’s not ALL bad.  🙂

Chemo weekend #3

Well I figured out that last time things were so rough because I was dehydrated.  Well, duh, just drink more water, Fool.  Yes.  But.  

See, when I drink anything cooler than lukewarm, my throat feels like I’m swallowing a porcupine.  So it has to be warm.  You try and drink a bunch of warm crap all day when you already feel like puking.  One can only drink so much tea!!!  I have about 7 different kinds and I’m sick of them all.  

Don’t get me wrong.  They are lovely.  I’m just tired of them.  I want a frosty glass of ice cold seltzer water with a juicy wedge of lime!  Or maybe a margarita, honestly.  But that’s not happening this weekend, that’s for sure.  
The upside to feeling rather crappy is that I do stuff I never do.  Like sit in front of the Christmas tree and stare at it.  
I mean, look at that thing.  It’s glorious!
I’m also reading more, although I don’t always have the necessary concentration.  And I’m sleeping when I’m tired instead of the normal routine of chugging coffee and pushing through.  I reward my body with rest instead of telling it to “suck it up.”  And I take a hot bath with this yummy stuff whenever it strikes my fancy.
Oh man.  You haven’t lived until you’ve treated yourself to this stuff.  It’s like taking a nap on a giant vanilla bean.  (Don’t nap in the bath, though – obviously.)  
So, I’m covered on the bubble bath front, I’m in the market for new warm beverages, and looking forward to the energy surge that will arrive in the next couple of days.  I’m about a 4 on the 1-10 scale today but I’m confident that I’m on the way up.  
You wanna know what’s fantastic, though?  I’m done with chemo until 2014!  So I’m free to enjoy Christmas and New Years like a normal person.  I just need to kick a little ass the next two days or so and then…hand me a Santa hat* and turn up the Holiday jams!  It’s the most…wonderful time…of the year!
*not really – I look absurd in hats! 

Round 3

As I head into round 3 of chemo, I am kind of amazed.  If you told me that one day I would have cancer, and the evening before a chemo treatment I’d be sitting calmly in front of my Christmas tree, listening to holiday tunes, savoring some homemade applesauce and feeling pretty content, I would have laughed.  I mean, this is one of your worst nightmares, right?  I have advanced stage, aggressive cancer.  It’s no joke.  

But a Scripture passage comes to mind.  The one where Paul says he has learned the secret to being content in all circumstances.  This guy was beaten within an inch of his life on multiple occasions and shipwrecked a few times.  And the one in the Old Testament where the three men are thrown into the fire by the king – they didn’t know whether God would save them or not…but they trusted Him anyway. David writes of walking through the valley of the shadow of death but not being afraid.  
What does this reveal? That spiritual maturity, or a deep connectedness with God allows us courage and contentedness in the face of unsettling, scary, upsetting circumstances.  I’ve got a long way to go.  But I’m beginning to see how it’s possible, by God’s grace.  
Please pray for me.  I need it.  And you need it (your prayers for me will bless YOU.  Connecting with God right now is the best way you can spend the next two minutes.  Promise.) But know that I am confident in God. I am floored by His grace.  By His mercy.  He certainly likes to keep things interesting.  
I’m going to do my part – let them put the poison in me and not be a baby about it. God is going to do His part – be right there with me no matter how sucky it gets.  And you can do your part – pray for me, ditch those mom jeans and maybe send over some non-Gmo vegetarian lasagna or something.  

Cancer and Mom Jeans

Do you have any character flaws?

Hahahahahaha.  Of course you do.  Me too.  Lots!  Here are a few:
I enjoy being right a little more than I should
I am stingy toward people I think are foolish
I’m messy to a degree that is impolite
I have numerous double standards
I have the sense of humor of an 11 year old boy at times
I expect people to read my mind 
I often think people should just “suck it up”
I am stubborn and prideful
I buy too many black shirts
I care more about tasks than people when under pressure
I avoid disapproval of those I deeply respect
I am impatient with my daughter
I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with Bono from U2 
I judge you if you wear mom jeans

So, one of the things I am prayerful of during this wild ride of being a cancer patient is that these impurities will rise to the surface like those present in gold do, in the fire.  Cancer is the fire.  I’m the gold…granted, a sub-par, bargain basement variety, presently.  The intolerance for mom jeans, for example is the impurity that will rise to the surface to be burned off or scooped out and flung into the pile of arrogance, insecurity, rage, control, cowardice, vanity, etc.  
But how?  How can trials such as this make us better?  
I’m not entirely sure but I do know that knowing God in the midst of the suffering is the key.  Somehow our communion with Him is where it’s at.  
Not what He does or doesn’t do for us.  
Sometimes we think we’ll pray and He’ll answer in the exact way we want and that’s how we know and then our faith is strengthened.  That happens.  Now and again.  But that’s not the fullness of it.  We tend to think of God as this figure who either grants our wishes immediately and in a particular way like a genie or who doesn’t exist at all.  We come to the table with an agenda.  Heal the disease.  Keep me safe.  Free me from pain.  Give me the money.  Make him love me back.  
We can’t handle it that God is so much bigger and wiser and possesses much more full and accurate perspective than we do. Suffering in His presence, seeking to trust His ways, reaching out bit by bit in faith…that’s how it happens.  We see Him at work.  We feel more secure.  Our fears shrink.  Our hope grows.  Our eyes open more, our perspective shifts, our hearts grow bigger and softer.  We begin to desire His will more than our self-centered, immature, limited desires.  Because we begin to understand that even though it’s beyond our finite minds to fully grasp, that somehow, He is always hard at work for our good.  

Suffering is necessary

Tim Keller, in his excellent book “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” says that suffering is necessary.  That it’s an important way to grow.  That people who escape suffering are typically lacking in terms of resiliency, of knowing their strengths and weaknesses, of understanding the human experience with a depth of wisdom.  

Interestingly, the same devastating or traumatic experience can destroy one person, yet strengthen another.  We have to approach it in an effective way, specific to our particular variety of suffering (whether it be illness, physical pain, facing possible death, experiencing the loss of a loved one, suddenly imposed physical limitations, lack of basic needs, even a nasty break-up) to glean growth rather than bitterness.  Our hearts will be broken now and again in ways mostly small, but sometimes big.  My big one is cancer.  Some days that feels a little like this:

Maybe your “big thing” is totally different.  And maybe it’s from the past.  Or it hasn’t come yet.   Not trying to scare you.  But my hope is each of us can do a little “prep work” to help us be armed against suffering totally destroying us.
This is by no means an exhaustive list for how to deal with suffering…if you want that, start with Keller’s book.  However…
Some ways to prepare ourselves to be pointed in the direction of growth and away from the direction of bitterness:
Let’s expect that we will suffer.  Ok?  Something upsetting is going to happen at some point.  So let’s not fear or be overwhelmed by it but let’s notice that chances are, something devastating will occur in our lifetime.  That’s life.  Life is full of joy and fun and boredom and annoyance and tragedy.  It just is.  
Let’s deal with our illogical notions that if we are well behaved, we will escape suffering – it’s not Biblical, and it’s just not true if you look around.  You know perfectly nice people that have suffered.  
Let’s wrestle with the difficult reality that encountering suffering does not mean God does not love us.  Because, umm, like Jesus totally suffered and he’s God’s favorite.  
Let’s believe that suffering can produce many things: perseverance, character and hope, to name a few.  But also glory.  Straight up glory.  When all seemed lost, as Christ died on the cross…they must have thought “game over.”  A skinny naked teacher hung there dying.  A crude and tragic sight.  What fools they must have felt like, following him around for those years.  But little did they know what was happening. Little did they know the spell was being broken.  That Death was being defeated.  That God’s love was pouring out.  
Maybe God’s love is pouring out in the midst of your suffering and mine.  God can be quite subtle in His ways.  Look for the evidence.  I bet it’s there.