Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

June 22, 2008: “Searching For Meaning in Illness”

A woman with cancer is told by her primary physician she’ll be dead in an hour. She runs to the window, looks up to the sky and says, God, save me. Out of the blue comes that wonderful melodious voice saying, Don’t worry, my dear. I will save you. The woman climbs back into bed, feeling reassured.

    Her physician called the surgeon and who walks in and says, If I operate in an hour, I can save you. No thanks, she says. God will save me. Then an oncologist, a radiation therapist and a nutritional therapist all tell her, We can save you. I don't need you. God will save me, was her reply to all of them.

    In an hour, the woman dies. When she gets to heaven, she walks up to God and complains, What happened? You said you'd save me and here I am, dead! You dumbbell, God says, What did you want? I sent a surgeon, an oncologist, a radiation therapist and a nutritional therapist!

    So there were two old men who died recently and were walking the golden streets of God's celestial realm.  There was more beauty and more splendor and more joy there than they had ever dreamed imaginable.  One of them turned to the other and said, "Isn't this wonderful?"
      The other replied, "Yes, and to think we could have gotten here ten years sooner if our wives hadn't made us stop smoking and  eat all that oat bran."

    Since we had planned to celebrate Ishbel Shure's Memorial Service after the church service some time ago since I would be away performing my daughter's wedding,  I realized that that would also influence what I would preach about for the morning worship service so I thought I thought I would preach about illness and the search for meaning through it all. I use as a main text a book which was tremendously helpful to me personally, when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 1999. Interestingly, the book's title was changed somewhat in later editions; it began as Close to the Bone: Life Threatening Illness and the Search for Meaning, by Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., a Jungian Analyst and deeply spiritual writer. The latest edition in 2007 was titled, Close to the Bone: Life Threatening Illness  as A Soul Journey. It is the book that I often give to people when I hear that they have been diagnosed with cancer or another serious illness.

She writes: “When an illness is life-threatening, we are usually able to recognize how insignificant and unimportant many of our everyday concerns are. We may find that we are, for this time, free of neurotic preoccupations; what matters, for a change, may be what really matters. ‘Cancer can be an instant cure for neurosis’ was how several women at a conference for breast cancer put it…since I read Viktor Frankls book, Man’s Search for Meaning,(about surviving the Concentration Camp ) I have had an appreciation of a spiritual and psychological reality: that no matter how little control we may have over circumstances, even in the most terrible situation, we have a choice of how we will respond. …
Dying people spend their days like newborns do, sleeping and dreaming, and having their basic needs taken care of by others; the dreaming, the reverie, and the moments of clarity and conversation may not only ease the transition but be soul-healing time.. For its not what happens to us, but how we respond that ultimately matters and shapes who we are from inside out.” Sometimes when people, especially children, want to know where we go when we die, I ask them where they think we were before we were born, before we were even in our mother’s tummies, (that’s important to emphasize) and maybe that’s where we return. But illness and even dying are, or can be spiritual experiences. It is important not to see them as punishment for sin, though how we treat our bodies will come back to haunt us!

    In the midst of illness, we may discover the true meaning of life is just surviving, just being able to breathe on one's own or even with help!  We must  all find our own meaning, sometimes by comparing notes and stories.

    Part of training for ministry takes place outside of seminary walls inside of hospital rooms called Clinical Pastoral education, CPE for short, also known as Chaplaincy Training, 10  40 to 50 hour weeks of  being a  hospital chaplain under the supervision of a trained director with a group of other students with mornings doing rounds and afternoons in seminars and classes discussing and writing about experiences and counselings. You sit with the sick, you comfort the bereaved, you work the emergency room all night, trying to offer comfort and prayers to those of all persuasions, so to speak.  Everyone who goes to surgery is offered the chance to pray with a chaplain.  Some welcome the opportunity and are greatly comforted; others say, no thanks, I don't believe in that. That would always be a relief, and I might say, me neither, let's just talk about it and sometimes it seemed to have a similar affect. For what is prayer, after all, but the opportunity to communicate in a deeper way than we think we can do normally one to one?

    It has now been proven by studies that talk therapy actually changes brain chemistry and relaxes certain parts of the brain; certainly, then prayer might be seen as the same thing!

    The chaplaincy training  is, without doubt, the most intense and souls searching part of the process of ministerial training, of becoming a minister, at least until you actually enter the ministry and your first church, and those people  are suddenly your beloved members!

    I served the church in San Antonio for 16 years and don't want to count up the number of  dear friends I lost; just to go through the picture directories is to tear up as I realize how many of those pictured are no longer with us, and how much they meant to the church, to me, to so many people. I remember how each of them died, often their illnesses, their dignity, how they handled it, and always, always how unfair it seemed.  Some lived until their 90s-good long lives, others cut down too soon by cancer or even murder with young children still.          One particular friend, Hank Lippert, a warm and happy man in early 70s came down with prostate

cancer and inspired me to write a poem about it that I eventually would read at his memorial service. He was one of those people who did everything right, who never gave up, always remained positive, was surrounded by loving support, but I suppose we could say that it was simply his time. He was even writing a book about the process and had collected a huge notebook of cards and quotes sent to him, advice on how to get through the hard times. Hopefully his wife Peggy will take it up as she continues to struggle surviving widowhood after so many years of a wonderful marriage now being alone.

    I was working on the poem  for this sermon and was thinking of using it for the front cover and asked my wife to choose between the poem and the quote that I finally chose. She thought that the title, Cancer was too depressing for a cover, and I agreed, so I changed the word, wherever it appeared simply to illness. It is still really about cancer, because it is so insidious; it took my mother, after all, and Cathie's mother as well, and so many people I have loved, but when I changed it to illness, it became more universal. Let me share it with you:

When illness comes as it does so dreadfully often,
we may gird for battle
or lie down
and go to the last
and most restful sleep of all.
Sometimes it comes down
to how much we want to live,
what we have to live for and toward,
who’s there beside us,
around us
and especially what’s inside us.
And other times
it just doesn’t seem to matter
when illness carries away
even the happiest,
most loving
and most loved.
Love and Laughter ALWAYS helps,
like a candle
in the dark despair of illness
or a campfire
in the cold night woods of disease.
Always carry marshmallows,
waterproof matches, sit-upons,
and jokes.
Illness calls for finding True Grit
and seeking the Holy Grail,
that Chalice of meaning,
And finally, Faith-
In life and love
which some call God,
or the Good which some people fight for.
while others leave unnamed.
Yes, the biblical story of Job can’t help but come up.
Is illness a punishment, a divine test?
Forgive me
if I I don’t like the kind of God who would do that!
An original sin?
Jesus never mentioned it.
Listen, life is a mystery
and a journey;
It may have no end,
none can truly say,
But I am for how we live the journey
,making the destination
part of the same mystery
as the creation of the universe.
May the God of Love surround us,
looking suspiciously
like our loved ones
and the various medical personnel
hovering around the hospital or hospice room.

Part of that is to say that there is a mystery about life, illness, the biology of our bodies, death, and why we live or die. We must also caution, however, that we don’t get the message that it is somehow our fault, oh we of little faith, if we aren’t cured though we thought we did everything we could.
The daughter of Dr. Lewis Thomas, best selling physician and science writer with books like Lives of a Cell said, Growing up a doctors daughter, I learned early in life from my father not to panic at the first sign of illness. and quotes her father; The great secret, known to internists and learned early in marriage by internists wives, but still hidden from the general public, is that most things get better by themselves. Most things, in fact, are better by morning.
That’s why so often you can get better by taking 2 aspirin and calling them in the morning.

    The more I read about the mind-body connection, the more science is discovering about the goings on inside our bodies that seem to be like a veritable universe inside us that we have little control over, the more I realize how crucial it is that we live lives of love, creativity, altruism, a will to live and serenity. It may not keep us from illness, nor will it keep us from death, but it may give us the meaning to make the life we have worth living! And the people around us anxious to help us stay alive and be around to live it with them, I am convinced that we need other peoples energy and love to stay alive ourselves! In my song You, Me and the Universe, one verse goes, Hear all the stories ever told/The greatest is always this-most of the hurts that we suffer/Can still be healed with a kiss.

The mothers kiss or touch is a psych or spiritual bandaid that none of us would surely argue with. Dr. Bolen writes it this way: Healing Touch: Prayers are healing words. Healing touch is also prayer. Years ago, when my children were little, and either of them were coming down with something, I would sit on the edge of their beds, and put the palm of my hand or both hands over what was not well, and be with them. I prayed that love would flow through me, through my arms to my hands and into them, and that they would get well. It was hardly a controlled experiment, but it did seem that beginning sore throats and beginning chest colds did get better, and there were rarely sick in childhood. It felt good because I was doing something that might help. To share this kind of prayerful moment is to be in a meditative field together, linked by physical as well as spiritual contact.

    Surgeon Siegel says in Love Medicine and Miracles a similar thing: I view spirituality as including the belief in some meaning or order in the universe. I view the force behind creation as a loving intelligent energy. For some, this is labeled God, for others it can be seen simply as a source of healing.

    One of the most radical things that Seigel did in working with cancer patients was to have them call him by his first name instead of Doctor! He wanted to form a loving relationship instead of a cold, clinical or shall we say mechanical one! That's why he is said to performs miracles! Do you suppose that could explain the ones they said Jesus did as well? You know Jesus often said after the healing- by you faith were you healed!

    In other words we make a kind of meaning, not only to the illness but to the healing. We must also caution, however, that we don't get the message that it somehow our fault, oh we of little faith, if we aren't cured though we thought we did everything we could But attitude is always important and hope always crucial. .The ancient father of medicine Hippocrates  said he would rather know what sort of person has a disease than what sort of disease a person has.  Illness is, and this may sound strange, an opportunity that our bodies may be presenting us for a variety of unknown and know reasons. As I've said, what goes in our brains, our bloodstreams, our hearts  and other internal organs are like life on other universes in their complexities- science fiction stuff, no?
    Jean Shinoda Bolen writes under the heading: Close to the Bone:
    That the soul might also be engaged is not our expectation.  Yet a life-threatening illness calls to the soul, taps into spiritual resources, and can be an initiation into the soul realm for the patient and for anyone else who is touched by the mystery that accompanies the possibility of death. When life is lived at the edge in the border realm between life and death it is a liminal time and place.  Liminal comes from the Latin word for threshold.  It is not an everyday word; it is one whose meaning  I want to evoke out of the remembered experience of the reader and the collective memory of the human race, which we all have access to.
    Whenever we participate in something that will change us, and change how others relate to us as when we marry, are inducted into the armed forces or ordained, become a doctor, or survive an ordeal that experience is a liminal one.  Whenever we are initiated into knowing something we did not know before on a body level for example, through sexual intercourse or pregnancy we cross a threshold.  Here the mystical, spiritual, or psychic awareness of what is happening, however, determines its significance as a soul experience.  So it is with a life-threatening illness, which similarly happens in and to the body and yet can profoundly affect the soul.  Soul Moments For soul to be heard, the mind must be still.  Then thoughts and feelings can arise as if from a deep well within us. 

    Our minds, our thoughts, shape, not only our realities, but our physical as well as our mental health. We must be careful what we think! What we believe! Norman Cousins, the editor of Saturday Review,  says about the importance of positive thinking in his book about his own illness,  Anatomy of an Illness, The will to live is not a theoretical abstraction, but a physiologic reality with therapeutic characteristics. You're probably familiar with his situation where he was diagnosed with an incurable disease, and making the story simplified, decided to laugh himself well by watching comedy movies nonstop until, sure enough, he recovered! This intellectual editor became a consulting professor at a leading medical school! Frankly, no one knows exactly what heals us or even what makes us ill; that is why some people are healed or some people get  sick, why medicines work sometimes and not others.

    We have made great strides in medicine and science, yet great mysteries and miracles remain, thank god and goddess and goodness. And yes, sometimes medicine keeps us alive too long;  I  believe we should have an option of choosing a good death when we feel it is our time and place.  We do know the spiritual aspects of the beloved community help us through the transitions, of birth and the coming of age and the great happiness of marriage, of the weekly worship, of the sacred changing of the seasons which our very bones call out for holiday expression and maybe even sweets and presents and bright colors, and yes of illness , and old age and finally death and memorial service.

    The great meaning of life is to live it and love it, to travel it the best we can, to love one another, and to love the journey, to choose good companions, and to help one another over the tough parts, and savor the meals together.

The German poet, Rilke, wrote: Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live everything. Live the questions.

    May we find meaning when we are in pain as well as when we are in pleasure, may we believe in he transforming power of love, of each other and especially of the incredible power and strength, perhaps we might even say divinity within each one of us, that strength we didn't know we had. May we do more than just walk together, may we also play together, work for justice together, help one another through sickness and in health and love one another.

In Memory of Ishbel Shure: The great Scottish Entertainer, Sir Harry Lauder –
End Of The Road
by: William Dillon &Lauder)
Keep right on to the end of the road, keep right on to the end,
Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong, keep right on round the bend.
Tho’ you’re tired and weary still journey on, till you come to your happy abode,
Where all you love you’ve been dreaming of will be there at the end of the road.

Amen, Shalom, Salaam, Abrazos a todos Namaste, Blessed Be .Vaya Con Su Dios,

Reading -From Close to the Bone, Bolen

Recovery Begins with a Positive Emotional Response

    In an interview (1995), Dr. Pert elaborated upon this discovery:  Emotions are not in the head.  There's a cellular consciousness.  There's a wisdom in every cell.  Every single cell has receptors on it.  The emotional energy comes first, and then peptides are released all over. . . Consciousness precedes matter.  It's not like a peptide created the feeling.  The feeling creates the peptide, on some level.

The Healing Power of a Story
Mr. Wright had huge tumor masses the size of oranges throughout his body. He had difficulty breathing and required an oxygen mask because his chest was filling with fluid. His cancer had progressed too far for any treatment. Yet, as his physician noted, he clung to the belief that if he were treated with Krebiozen it would cure him. Miraculous cures had been attributed to Krebiozen in the popular press, and he avidly read all he could about this wonder drug. Coincidentally, the drug was to be tested at the clinic where Mr. Wright was a patient. He did not qualify for the experimental treatment, however: to take part in the trials, a patient had not only to be beyond the reach of standard medical treatment, but to have a life expectancy of at least three months. Against his better judgment and against the rules of the Krebiozen committee, his physician wrote that Mr. Wright begged so hard for this golden opportunity that he decided he would have to include him in the trials. The shots were to be given three times a week. The bedridden, gasping Mr. Wright was given his first injection on a Friday. When his doctor returned to the hospital on the following Monday, fully expecting that Mr. Wright might be moribund or dead, he was confronted by a recuperative miracle. Mr. Wright was strolling around the ward, chatting happily with the nurses and spreading his message of good cheer to any who would listen. Upon examination, the doctor found, in now-celebrated observation, the tumor masses had melted like snowballs on a hot stove, and in only these few days they were half their original size. Within ten days, Mr. Wright was discharged with nearly all evidence of disease vanished. He was symptom free and even resumed flying his private plane. However, after two months of virtually perfect health, Mr. Wright read that all of the clinics testing Krebiozen were reporting dismal results. He began to lose hope and relapsed to his former condition. When he returned to the clinic, his physician made and audacious decision: Knowing something of my patient’s innate optimism by this time, I deliberately took advantage of him. This was for purely scientific reasons, in order to perform the perfect control experiment which could answer all the perplexing Questions he had brought up. Furthermore, this scheme could not harm him in any way, I felt sure, and there was nothing I knew anyway that could help him. Deliberately lying, he told Mr. Wright not to believe what he read in the papers, that the drug was really most promising after all. When the patient most logically asked why he had relapsed, he was told that the substance was found to deteriorate on standing, and that new, super-refined product would be arriving the next day. The fictional dissimulations went so far as to delay the fictional shipments arrival so that his patient’s anticipation of salvation had reached a tremendous pitch. With much fanfare, and putting on quite an act, the doctor administered an injection consisting of nothing but distilled water. Mr. Wright’s second recovery from death was even more dramatic. The masses again melted away, the fluid in the chest vanished and he became the picture of health until two months later, when the final AMA report came out showing Krebiozen to be worthless. A few days later, Mr. Wright was back in the hospital, and within two days of his return was dead. As I mused about Mr. Wright, I wondered if his cancer could have stayed in remission if he had been told that he had a body with a remarkable ability to heal itself. That it was him, not any magic medicine, that had made the cancer go away, that his story was like Walt Disneys Dumbo and his feather. Dumbo was the little elephant with the enormous ears who couldn’t fly until a crow gave him a feather to hold in his trunk and told him it was magic; with it, he could fly. Thinking that the feather made it possible to fly, Dumbo flapped his ears and took off. The feather and a story made it possible for him to do what he had the innate ability to do all along. Knowing that the report on Krebiozen was coming out, and the last injection was water, what if the doctor had told Mr. Wright that, in effect, Dumbos story was his story?