Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cancer and Questions

My dad had colon cancer. He died when I was fourteen. 

When I was fifteen, I got screened for "genetic compatibility" with my dad. All of his children were encouraged to have a colonoscopy-- an outpatient screening of the colon-- and some blood work. I had eight polyps, little bump-like things that are usually harmless, but important to remove. Given that I had them at age 15 (which is a little unusual), my doctor assumed I had "juvenile polyposis"-- also usually harmless, but important to keep an eye on. Over the years, I've had regular screenings; some with better results than others, but all in all, nothing that couldn't be managed. 

In January, I had my first screening since moving to Dallas, and the results were a little more alarming. Basically, the polyps I had this time were not the harmless kind, and they weren't "juvenile" either. Neither were they particularly tiny or easy to remove. In fact, I have to go back in June for another operation so she can get the rest out and see how fast they've grown since January. 

My doctor said that while I don't have cancer, I did have the kind of "bumps" that turn into cancer, although nobody can say how quickly that might happen. She suggested I strongly consider having my colon removed in the next few years. She also said the surgery could hinder my ability to get pregnant, so maybe I should have it removed in two surgeries. Or, she said, I could keep getting screened every year and take my chances, but that there's no guarantee they will catch it in time (apparently this stuff can develop in less than a year). 

As I attempt to process her advice and think about a course of action, I am weathering a surprising array of emotions, ranging from denial to panic. Do I take this seriously and treat it as a potential matter of life and death, or is that letting one woman's words define me unnecessarily? Do I fight this with nutrition as extremely as possible, or would it be silly to feel guilty for eating pizza at a party? Do I play it safe and opt for a major surgery that could alter my life, or is that giving in to fear? If I don't, and then later develop cancer like my dad, how will my husband or kids feel, knowing that I could have "prevented" it? And-- perhaps most surprisingly-- if I do take out my colon and eliminate this dynamic of my life, will I lose yet another connection to my father? 

I had no idea how emotionally complex it would be for me to be in these shoes, these shoes that are so like my father's. I feel that I am standing at the entrance of a familiar hospital wing and can still see the outline of his steps down the hall. Do I follow where he went? Do I run as fast as I can in the opposite direction? Is it delusional to think I have a choice anyway? If there's one thing I learned by watching him, it's that we are not really sovereign over our own lives. In other words, taking out my colon doesn't really eliminate the risk, anyway. I could remove one of my organs only for cancer to develop in another; or I could leave it in and be miraculously spared from the growth of cancer cells. 

This post doesn't really have any answers, only questions. Questions because life is not simple and the way is not always clear; because I am not in control but still given choices, choices that matter; questions because situations like this remind me that I am creature, not Creator; questions because the Christian life is not one of needing to have an answer for everything right away, but one where I am safe to ask, safe to cry, safe to wrestle. 

I don't expect to have an answer-- or even stabilized emotions-- by next week, and I'm realizing that's OK. I'm realizing that even when the "answers" come about what choice to make, I'll still be a creature, wrestling with the recurring pain of loss and the sobering reality of the unknown. And I'm realizing that's OK too.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Being Liked

I am an extrovert. I thrive off of getting to know people, investing in relationships, and spending time together. One reason the idea of career "ministry" sounds fun to me is because that kind of work usually involves people; who wouldn't want their job to be meeting people for coffee or lunch, going to kids' baseball games and choir concerts, having people over for dinner, and walking with them through life's journey? Well, I'm learning that lots of people wouldn't-- people who are gifted in ways that I am not-- people who probably think, "Who wouldn't want their job to be undisturbed hours in a lab, a library, or an office?" But, here I am, and here's the path I'm on, and I love it. 

Except when I don't love it. And that's because of this other thing that I'm learning about myself: I want to be liked. I mean, I desperately need to be liked and if I'm not, I crumble. Our day-to-day activities include visiting people in their homes, planning and hosting events for them, and helping to foster community in our building. (Think "dorm parent" for grown-ups.) And most of the time, I love it. But this morning, I heard some less-than-affirming words, and it was like a sucker punch. In short, a person I had been investing in, seeking to get to know, wanting to spend time with, had said something to the effect of, "her personality isn't my favorite," and I heard about it. 

Suddenly, life didn't seem worth living. I wanted to crawl under the rug and never come out. I didn't want to knock on anyone's door, I didn't want to go be friendly at our event, and I definitely didn't want to see this person. Or rather, it's not that I didn't want to do any of those things, but that I felt unable to. How can I make myself vulnerable when I just got rejected? How can I open up and give of myself when someone virtually just said, "no thanks?" How can I continue to put my energy into someone who doesn't like me? 

After a few hours of sniffling and feeling sorry for myself (OK, and eating chocolate chip muffins), I realized: it's OK to want to be liked, but it's not OK to let that be my primary motivation in caring for others. Either I care for them regardless of how they feel about me, or I'm using them to feel good about myself. I thought about Jesus, and how He cared for people who put Him on a cross. He knew rejection more than I ever will; and yet He still chose to give of Himself in the fullest, most painful way. 

I think it's OK for me to feel sad that this person doesn't like me as much as I had hoped. But I'm also learning that the call to do "ministry" means to seek his good one way or another. And if I'm really considering making this kind of thing my career, I'm sure this won't be the last person who doesn't care for my personality, or who won't be thankful for my friendship, or who won't like me. And I have to decide, where does my energy to invest in others come from? Does it come from being liked? Because that's not a given. Or, does it come from the fact that God likes these people, regardless of how they feel about me? 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mommy Wounds and God as Mother

As an orphan, I've spilled a lot of ink over the significance of fatherhood. My own story lends itself to that, because I lost my father at a young age. But as Mother's Day has been approaching, I've realized that this "holiday" is just as complex for a number of my friends as Father's Day is for me. After all, moms die too-- and they leave, remain emotionally absent or unsafe, or act abusively. And those wounds are just as significant and deep as mine are, because a parent is a parent. Regardless of the gender, context, or category of loss, the absence of a parent is devastating. 

As a Christian, I've spilled a lot of ink over the power of God as Father. I have experienced this firsthand because of my own experience of need. But as I've thought about my friends whose hearts ache in the absence of Mother, a number of passages in the Bible about God as Mother have come to my mind: 

“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”  - Is. 66:3 

“Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.”  - Deut. 32:11-12

"How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  -Matt. 23:37

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”- Is. 49:15

"Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close." - Ps. 27:10 (this one was especially powerful to me in my teen years) 

The reality is that each human relationship-- be it Father, Mother, Friend, Spouse-- is a dim reflection of the relationship God longs to have with us, because each of these roles is reflective of His character. He is Protector, Nurturer, Provider, Comforter, Companion, Loyal Family Member, Lover. So my prayer this Mother's Day is that each of us would reflect-- on what we did receive from mothers that can help us to better understand God's character-- but also on the gaps in our own experiences. Those wounds are significant, and they matter to God. And He longs to be there for us in those ways our mothers were not.

What are some specific ways you still long for "motherly care?" Can you imagine God providing that? Why or why not? 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Community: Why it's Hard

I've been thinking a lot lately about community-- particularly as it pertains to singleness, since I've read two memoirs by single people in the last month-- and I've been refreshed by their vision for what it ought to be, and also reminded of the pain and challenges involved in seeking it out. The books' main impact on me was awakening me to the absolute necessity of a thriving Christian community that goes beyond the "nuclear family," AKA "me and my spouse/me and my kids." And in a culture that is so individualistic, that is so privatized, it's difficult for us to imagine anything like that. I mean, sharing life in a deep way, even with a spouse, can already feel like being skinned alive. It's hard enough to expose our weaknesses, fears, and insecurities to someone who knows us intimately; how much harder might it be to be vulnerable to others as well? What's more, it's already inconvenient enough to invest in one or two deep relationships (think parent, spouse, child) Do we really have the time to prioritize deep relationships with others as well? 

The latter is what has convicted me so much in the past month. I like to be very "organized" about how I spend my time, especially social time. Being the extrovert that I am, I love people-- but I also have to recharge from being with them, so I feel justified in "scheduling" relationships. What that means is there are times when I'm available to engage meaningfully, and there are times when I'm not: when I don't want to answer the phone, stop and talk, or respond to invitations. 

Now. I know that balance is not a bad thing, and that having structure-- time with others and time "alone"-- is healthy. But. The dangerous lie is that real, transformative community can happen between 1-2pm at Starbucks and I can clock out after I've "done my time." The lie is that I can show up at a Bible study or prayer meeting, spout off some pious words, act concerned for my friend who just expressed her deep struggle with loneliness, and then go about my day. "Engaged in meaningful community: done. Checked off the list. Now on to groceries. And if some other needy person comes by, well, too bad for them. I have things to get done." 

Now, it may be an appropriate time to stop and mention what "real, transformative community" is or why it matters. That could be a post (or book) on its own, so I'll try to be brief. First, to be human is to be relational. We were created-- wired-- to know and be known interpersonally, AKA in community. We can't really become who we were created to be if we keep people out. Second, to be a Christian is to be part of a corporate reality; it is to belong to the Church, Christ's Body. That means one cannot really live the Christian life from behind a TV screen (how many churches nowadays are live-streamed?), a book (guilty there) or even a pulpit. It is not enough to sit around and think about Christian ideas or check spiritual boxes: to be a Christian is to be in communion with Christ, and therefore with His people. What's more, it's not enough to show up to church on Sunday and say all the right things, or even to attend holy sounding mid-week events on a regular basis. Those things can be good, but they're not ends in themselves. We can participate in "scheduled" community without ever really being known, exposing ourselves, or investing in others.  

Here's where nuclear families come in. Sure, my husband and I could have that deep interpersonal knowing and relationship; we could pray for each other and be that community for each other. And in many ways we do, and that's a good thing. But if we don't extend that community to the rest of the Body, it would be like putting a rubber-band around my pinky finger; it would be cutting us off from the larger entity of which we are a part. It would hurt us (as much fun as we have together, we need more than each other's eyes to stare into) and it would hurt them (we're called not to hoard our lives, but to share them with those around us!). 

So, back to why this concept is hard. I've already mentioned the inconvenience of it, the time involved, and the risk of being vulnerable with others. But I think another reason this is hard is because sometimes, that very community burns us. Yes, the Church is Christ's bride, His body, His "presence" on earth. And yes, it is broken, in need of rescue, and filled with hurting, angry people-- many of whom are not "safe." No wonder we don't want to be vulnerable! We've got our own issues to deal with, and so often it feels difficult enough to lick our wounds in private, without subjecting ourselves to people who will perpetuate  those wounds by not really caring when we cry for help. For some of us, memories of seeking "real, transformative community"-- and being deeply wounded by it-- are what keep us away from Church altogether. 

What's the solution? I don't know. All I know is that my own experience in broken community helped me to realize that I'm not alone in my dysfunction. I'm fearful, selfish, and wounded-- and so are they. And that is why we all belong to Christ, because we need Him. That realization has made me more comfortable in Church, because I realize, "I fit right in." And it's one of the most shocking realities of the Christian story that Jesus, the Rescuer of Broken people, uses broken people as His means of rescue. In other words, those angry, hurting, insecure Christians are some of the very same ones who helped me grow into maturity. And some of them would also say that anxious, fearful, dysfunctional, angry Hannah helped them grow as well. I've both experienced deep pain in community, and found deep healing through it. It is a profound mystery! Yes, it's inconvenient, yes it takes time, yes it's dangerous and almost certainly painful. But yes, it is worth it. 

What has your experience been in community? Does it come naturally to you or do you find creative ways to stay hidden? How has singleness or family commitments played a part in your understanding of communal life? Whether you are a Christian or not, what has your experience of the Church been?  

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On Being an Outsider: A Memoir

One theme that has been prominent in my life is that of being on "the outside." As early as age 7, I remember my older brother and his friends not wanting to play with me and feeling so left out (a crash course in developmental psychology may have come in handy there, but alas, my elementary school didn't offer that). Vignettes like this are, of course, a normal part of growing up; but the dynamics surrounding my father's death when I was a teenager intensified those already-tender feelings, and in some ways cemented the lie on my heart: "I'm on the outside." 

The transition to fatherlessness was slow and painful. He was sick for four years, which dispersed our family of eight across the country for numerous seasons while my father was hospitalized. My first Thanksgiving away from Mom and Dad at age 11, I remember searching for words to describe the strangeness I felt being in someone else's home, eating someone else's turkey, watching someone else's family. The words didn't come, of course. Only awkward 11-year-old tears on my aunt's shoulder in her bedroom after dinner. 

In our hometown, the feelings persisted. I remember driving to school with my brother in silence, listening to a song about another father's death. At least there in the car filled with sadness, we had a community. My brother, I and the unknown musician understood each others' pain and could be at home together. But when we arrived at school, we dried our faces and walked into a crowded hallway filled with oblivious peers, most of whose greatest suffering consisted of a broken arm from a ski vacation or not making the Varsity basketball team. I searched for words to describe the strangeness I felt in that hallway day after day; I, whose world was so heavy, whose every moment hung on the chance of my father's last breath, was supposed to have something funny to say in gym class. 

In the wake of his passing and the fracturing of my family, I felt totally estranged from the squeaky clean (read: fully present) families surrounding me. Suddenly, homecoming dances, church pot-lucks, and Christmas cards made my insides turn from the painful sense of otherness I felt in their presence. Finally, the words did come, confirming my suspicions about being on the outside in one definitive title: "Orphan."  

In my pain, I desperately sought a community to be "inside," to belong to. Given some other dynamics at work in my life, I found this most accessible through boyfriends. My willingness to do anything in order to feel spoken for, to feel close, to feel safe-- not to mention my willingness to try anything to feel escape and release from the pain-- made what seemed like front-page-news at my small Christian school. Suddenly, gym class was a lot more awkward than it was before, if that's possible. In other words, my sinful response to the evil dealt to me made me both victim and culprit, and the suffering that ensued was a cocktail of grief-- due to living in a broken world, but also due to my own brokenness. High school was a season of life where pain and shame flowed together, and it was hard to separate one from the other.

Recently, these memories-- and this theme of feeling on the outside-- reappeared. One nonchalant comment from the wrong person had me internally re-living an old narrative: orphan; outsider; alone. I shared these feelings with a trusted mentor and she encouraged me to re-interpret my story by meditating on the truth that I belong to Christ, and am "on the inside" with Him: as a Christian, I am no longer an orphan, but a beloved daughter; no longer alone, but Christ's friend and sister. I contemplated this advice, and realized my reluctance to accept it. "But, so much of my feelings of isolation in high school were the result of my own sin," I said, "If I go back to those memories with God, maybe He'll validate the words of all those who looked down their noses at me; maybe He'll say I deserved to feel the way I felt." 

It was in that moment that I thought, of all things, of a school assignment of mine-- a paper I wrote on Genesis 16: an obscure text about Hagar, a foreign slave woman who ran away because her haughty attitude got her in trouble with her mistress. Alone in the desert, God came to her and blessed her. He told her, "Return to your mistress and submit to her...I will surely multiply your will name your child Ishmael, which means 'God has heard you' in your affliction." I realized in that moment that God cared about Hagar's suffering even though He knew her sin was part of its cause. He exposed the sin of her haughtiness and commanded her to live differently, but in the same sentence He promised that He would bless her, for He heard her affliction. 

I initially chose to write on that passage because I was interested in God's loving treatment of "outsiders" from the perspective of salvation history: my thesis was that here, at the beginning of the Bible, God displays His care for the outcasts by going after them and offering them new life. As a Christian, this good news is what I want to spend my life sharing with others. But yesterday as I was reflecting on my own story, I realized that this passage shows His love for outsiders in another sense as well; the sense that has been a major theme in my life. I realized that God invites me in even when I'm to blame. Yes, my sin has a part to play in my suffering. But even that is not enough to keep God from pursuing me, hearing my affliction, and extending His blessing to me. 

At the end of the Genesis 16 passage, Hagar says, "You are the God who sees." Today, I'm realizing that is a good thing; that I can go with Him to those painful memories-- where my own rebellion was such a factor-- and not fear His rejection or condemnation. Rather, through His incredible love in taking that rebellion upon Himself in the shape of the cross-- I can know that even my sin can't keep me from being safe with Him, "inside" with Him, belonging to Him.