Advent and Cancer
I entered the Advent season this year in a way I could have never imagined. Just one month before Advent began (on November 3), I was under a CT Scan machine to determine the nature of a 4 inch mass in my chest discovered by x-ray only days before. The news came fast and furious: lymphatic cancer. Did I hear the words correctly? Really? Could the cause of my coughing and extreme fatigue really be cancer? Once the news settled in, it became apparent that an intense journey lay ahead.
After the initial diagnosis came a needle biopsy, a surgically invasive biopsy, a bone marrow biopsy, and numerous blood tests. Just two days before Thanksgiving, I had a port placed in my chest where I would receive chemotherapy. Then, hours later, I received the first round of chemicals poured into my body. Next, a two week wait, through days of side effects and days of normalcy, until the next round of chemotherapy.
I’ve noticed that waiting in the midst of pain, uncertainty, and longing are the hallmarks of a cancer diagnosis and the subsequent therapy. This is the Advent season lived out in a tangible, physical way. Advent is a word that means “coming” or “arrival” and it is a time of waiting for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas during the 4 weeks preceding December 25th. Of course, He arrived in the past and provided salvation through the cross and resurrection but entering into a period of waiting each year reminds us of our need for a savior and orients our hearts to let go of the trivial and grasp that which is most real, Christ Himself. Each day of our lives, we have an invitation to welcome Christ into our lives and Advent gives us eyes to see the invitations as well as the resistances.
In Advent, we are choosing to learn to wait. We are learning to allow the unresolved and the uncertain to open our hearts to true hope. In our modern world, we can so easily slip around the sides of pain and uncertainty through avoidance. We avoid through numbing ourselves with activity and excess and substances. We avoid through moving away from that which is painful. Advent is the conscious choice to stay in the waiting and it is there that we are confronted with our tendencies to avoid.
Of course, something like a cancer diagnosis affords the same opportunity but not through the avenue of choice. But then again, I’m learning that there are choices and invitations each day in the midst of a cancer diagnosis. I can choose to make cancer my identity or I can choose to see myself in light of the hope of a God who is with me. I can choose to worry about tomorrow or I can choose the gift of what today will bring, even in the midst of pain. Part of my spiritual practice each day is prayerfully asking, “What are You inviting me into today, Lord?” (Note: I am learning this and not very good at it … yet.)
In observing Advent as a part of yearly rhythm in my life with Christ, it seems that our gracious Father has prepared me deeply for this season of prayer and waiting.
Here are a few things I’m leaning into these days:
- Trust is not relying upon answers and certainty, but resting in the One who holds all things. He holds my life and in one sense, the details are none of my business. I do know that He is good and sometimes that’s all I know.
- I see His love in the little, hidden things that many might not see. On my most difficult days, it seems as though He winks at me with a card in the mail or the text of a friend in which they unknowingly share things that are deeply meaningful in my relationship with God. I feel His gentle touch in the song or truth that the Spirit brings to mind in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. It is not the big things but the simple, quiet reminders that are so powerful.
- “The meaning is in the waiting.” This is the title of a great little Advent book by Paula Gooder. It is a reminder that waiting is not something to simply endure but a gift to unwrap. Waiting has its own meaning as it confronts us with our resistances to experiencing Christ in the now, not when our lives look the way we’d prefer.
- My identity is not as a cancer patient but as a child of God, His beloved. No circumstance or limitation defines me. On days when I feel like I can do nothing, I am reminded that I don’t have to do anything to be loved and valued. I have value that is independent of my ability to produce or contribute or even give back.
- I am truly learning to live day by day. I’ve never been so confronted by the reality that Jesus describes in Matthew 6, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow … sufficient for today is its own trouble.” I’m finding significant temptation in wanting to forget about today (especially when its painful) and move on to the next day, hoping that it will be better. No day is perfect and when I simply move on, I miss the gifts found within the imperfection of today. More than anything, it is His presence that is available today. Hope is about today … the hope and trust that He is at work, that He is present.
“Why am I in such a hurry to arrive? Yet how is it that, I’m grateful for this long and dusty road that is leading me back to loving union with my creator with my beloved. Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability— and that it may take a very long time … Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“Loving God, I don’t like to wait. So I don’t wait to see the unfolding of your kingdom or to rejoice in the Savior you have given me, because I would have to relinquish control. Too often, I end up creating my kingdom rather than turning to thy kingdom. Impatient, I stray from you presence, grasping at things and people rather than letting you alone satisfy my deepest desires. You see, Lord, if I am really honest, while I believe in you, I don’t always trust that you will be there to pick up the pieces. This Advent, make my will one with yours so that I may put greater trust in true wealth – your saving presence – especially one the days when mine feels so impoverished.” Andrew Carl Wisdom, Advent and Christmas Wisdom
“Do not focus on what may happen tomorrow, the same everlasting Father who care for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from the suffering or His will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations and say continually, ‘The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts I Him and I am helped. He is not only with me but in me and I in Him.’” Francis de Sales