As the calendar turned to 2021 I was hopeful. Our dog Casey, who had suffered an aortic blood clot in December, was making remarkable progress and was unexpectedly on the road to a full recovery. Meanwhile, I began the new year with a 10-week sabbatical that I hoped would give me time to focus on some personal projects, read, write, and take time to do some much-needed discernment.
Then came January 4.
After taking Casey to rehab I received a call that I had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer following a routine endoscopic procedure two weeks earlier. My wife Kristen and I asked the question everyone asks when they get such news.
"What's the plan?"
Chemotherapy and radiation were pretty obvious, but the big blow came next. Throughout my battle with gastrointestinal issues in 2020 my doctors warned me that I could develop an autoimmune disorder called primary schlerosing cholangitis (PSC), which develops in the liver and often leads to various cancers. Now, my doctor was telling me, it was clear that I did have PSC all along, and there was only one course of action.
"You're going to need a liver transplant."
Despite the fact that my liver was (and is still) functioning perfectly well, the only way to eliminate the PSC is to get a clean liver. Suddenly, everything else stopped. My personal sabbatical projects no longer mattered. This new journey would take over our lives in ways that we could not have imagined.
After meeting with both the transplant and liver teams at Duke University Medical Center, we shared the news of my diagnosis, just about the time that we began chemo and radiation. The amount of love poured in from folks from all over the country was (and is still) truly overwhelming. We set up a personal page over at Caring Bridge--which you can check out by clicking here--where people can get updates on my progress and find ways that they can help. Every day we receive cards, care packages, text messages, and phone cals from people who just want to let us know that they are thinking about us and praying for us.
The folks of Good Shepherd, the parish where I've served for almost 6 years, have not only been tremendous is showing their love and support for us, but while we are gone they are finding new ways to step up and care for one another, proving once again that being the Church is about much more than Sunday mornings with the pastor or priest. I miss being with them terribly, but I know that they are in good hands.
We have now come to the end of the first leg of our journey. Last week I completed my radiation treatments. It was very difficult at times, with lots of bouts of nausea and fatigue, but I blessedly never lost any hair and managed each day to have at least some form of activity. Almost every day that I went in for treatment someone rang the bell in the Cancer Center lobby to signal that they had finished their treatments, and I often have wondered what were their stories and what their next steps were. On Good Friday (April 2) my turn came.
Ringing the bell at the Cancer Center upon completed radiation.
We still have a ways to go before this journey is over. Several tests and an additional laparoscopic procedure are planned in the next 2-3 months, and there is still the matter of getting on the national list for a liver transplant and having the surgery before the end of the calendar year.
But for now, I can't help but reflect on what it meant to finish radiation on the last day of Holy Week and to face a hopeful yet uncertain future during this Eastertide.
Most years I have managed to read Marcus Borg's and John Crossan's excellent book The Last Week during Holy Week. It situates you right there in the middle of a raucous Jerusalem during Passover in the final days of Jesus' life, taking the reader day-by-day through Jesus' experiences according to the Gospel of Mark. This year, I felt closer to Jesus than I think I ever have, and yet also strangely distant.
You see, I am a cradle Episcopalian, who has always had deep, meaningful encounters with God in the context of public worship. The altar rail was where I first fell in love with Jesus Christ through the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. As a priest, planning and leading worship is arguably my most cherished responsibility. It is hard to separate myself from those experiences.
A year ago my wife Kristen created a Holy Week Spiritual Resource Guide to help members of our parish and other Christians find ways to use what they had in their homes to still mark Holy Week and Easter in the early days of what many of us have called COVID-tide. Still, Kristen and I were able to have some form of worship by recording the liturgies from the Paschal Triduum and continued offering pre-recorded Sunday worship for folks all the way up until my sabbatical. Once cancer struck, the hope of being together with members of Good Shepherd, or even being able to record the sacred liturgies, were dashed. We had to re-learn what Holy Week meant while enduring the toughest days of treatment.
Throughout the week Kristen and I incorporated many of the practices that she outlined in her Resource Guide: we had an Agape Meal on Holy Wednesday, washed feet on Maundy Thursday, and read the Stations of the Cross on our way to the last treatment appointment on Good Friday. But there was more going on for us beyond those practices.
For the first time in my life, the sufferings of Jesus hit home because of my own physical sufferings. There were times when I would cry out in pain, and perhaps more than at any other moment of my life, I knew that Jesus heard me because I knew Jesus understood. And just as Jesus could not escape his own pain, I could not escape mine. I had to endure, and the only way for me to do so was with Jesus.
We often wonder what we are to do about human suffering. I am convinced now more than ever that some form of suffering is necessary if we are ever to understand the full depths of the goodness and mercy and love of God. Jesus' own preaching is not to the comfortable and cozy, but the broken, the poor, the suffering. The Gospel is Good News because it gives those who are suffering a measure of hope and meaning. Anyone who has not known suffering simply cannot comprehend how such a message like "take up your cross and follow me" could ever be considered good. But for those who are hurting, it's the most powerful thing in the world.
This is not to say that suffering is glorified. Far from it. The Cross is not, by itself, glorified. It only has meaning in hindsight, in the experience of the Resurrection. And as I write this blog on a beautiful Easter Tuesday, I know that there is hope. Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, which means that everything we thought we knew about life, death, suffering, and hope are all transformed into something that is beyond human comprehension.
On the evening of Easter Sunday, Kristen and I celebrated Mass in the oratory in our home, which we've done each Sunday since the new year began. The Gospel for that evening was the story of the Walk to Emmaus, where two of Jesus' disciples meet him on the road during the evening hours of that first Easter but do not recognize him until after he breaks bread in their midst. I've preached and written before about Emmaus, and though there is little agreement on whether the place even existed, it is my favorite post-Resurrection story in the Bible. Because it's true, whether or not it's factual! We so often don't see Jesus in our midst. We recognize him only when the moment is gone. But if we let ourselves realize he was there all along, then our lives can be changed forever, just like those two disciples.
I've been walking to Emmaus this week.
I've looked back on the past six weeks and cannot help but see Jesus there. I see Jesus in the cards from old friends and parishioners of past churches. I see Jesus in my wife, who has loved and cared for me in so many ways and who is reminding me that there is grace in receiving as much as there is in giving. I wish that I had had the eyes to see in those moments, but if I can even look back and see Jesus in hindsight, then maybe my future will change, as well.
We are an Easter people. We live in the reality of the Resurrection. Christ is alive, present tense. I have often wondered about the disciples who realized that Jesus had been raised and asked the question:
I'm in a similar position right now. I have no idea what the future is going to hold. I can't tell you when I'll be able to return to my parish or even mow my own lawn. I have no idea from day to day how I will feel, and there are a lot of things that have to happen before I am truly back to 100% health. But one thing that I do know is that because Jesus Christ is alive suffering and death do not have the final say.
This is what I have learned through my own sufferings along this journey. Whatever sufferings you have endured, may you know that the Good News of Easter is real for you, as well. I was hopeful when 2021 started, and though the changes and chances of life have taken us down a most unwanted and unexpected path, I am hopeful still.