Who would-a thunk it? A potentially fatal illness has spurred me back to life. I’m more like wax and less like clay — a fact I pondered as I arrived home after my third and final 5-day in-hospital chemotherapy stint for mouth cancer on April 3rd, cue-ball bald and talking like Daffy Duck with a Swiss-German accent.
It all began last August. That’s when Hartford Hospital doctors snipped out about half my tongue and replaced it with skin from my left arm. Alas, the cancer rushed back in January. Thus the chemotherapy and the usual in-treatment gory details: vomiting and puking (both) and mind-numbing fatigue. The fatigue is ebbing but I’m still a junkie for anti-nausea medication. I’m actually feeling semi-human with an albino avocado head — which my nurses liked. It’s “younger.” My son says the nurses are on drugs (or words to that effect) and my wife nodded. She promptly filed a request that I never shave my head.
Wife versus nurses? Is there any question on who gets the win?
Personally, I think I look like one of the bad guys on Miami Vice, who emulated albino avocados as role models. I’m one of those nameless, speechless guards on a boat. I’m about to plunge into the sea because another Uzi-wielding bad guy forgot to turn his safety off. The photo proves my point.
I know. The eyebrows never fell off. Blessings reign supreme.
A Profound Moment
But Mr. Albino Avocado is a side show to the real juicy story, which gelled when I stepped off the scale about three days after my return and stared at myself in the mirror. My lips were cracked and bleeding (a side effect); my mouth was sore (another side effect); and I harnessed enough energy to come in last place in the Snail Olympics (another …). My weight: 155 pounds. I thought of myself last April: I weighed 175 and I feared I’d never dip below 170, a coveted goal ever since I weighed 194 in 2004; my lips were smooth and I talked normally, with some still asserting that my voice belonged on the radio. Indeed, I was beginning to upload sermons on Youtube as trial runs for a series of talks. I was ready. I was willing. I would go public and fight the good fight. But then my tongue jumped off a cliff and the rest of my mouth followed. Good-bye public speaking career and hello to pureed food.
And yet, I would not go back. A year ago, I was trying to fight off a funk into which I plummeted the previous November. I was a mentally and emotionally fatigued burned-out pastor after 28 years of wrestling with difficult churches, some of which seemed determined to kill themselves. Many of my goals now seemed like impossible dreams. Worst of all, I had actually developed a snide attitude toward God. I knew I needed spiritual renewal: Let me retreat into a hermitage in which I spend hours and hours with God.
This cancer forced me to do just that, catalyzing my renewal and molding me into a far happier man. Maximus the Confessor (580 – 662 AD) said this: “The soul is wax if it cleaves to God, but clay if it cleaves to matter. Which it does depends upon its own will and purpose. Clay hardens in the sun while wax grows soft. Similarly, every soul that, despite God’s admonitions, deliberately cleaves to the material world, hardens like clay and drives itself to destruction … But every soul that cleaves to God is softened like wax and, receiving the impress and stamp of divine realities, it becomes ‘in spirit the dwelling place of God.’”
I pray: “Change me into wax, Oh God, so that I can receive the ‘impress and stamp of divine realities’ and that I may become more ‘the dwelling place of God.”
Maximus says that humility catalyzes the clay-to-wax transformation. It fends off the “tyrannical demons” and “turns away every demonic power.” I sense that God has used my cancer to steer me back to the pleasure of humility, where I view others not as competitors – not as potential adversaries whom I must conquer – but as other instruments in God’s orchestra with whom I can harmonize. Humility is the process by which I tune my instrument so that I can play with others – and it helps me as I offer counsel as they tune theirs. They’ll see my spirit of love and partnership, not superiority.
I find that I’m less restless now, more satisfied, more fulfilled.
I won’t say that I’m thankful for the cancer, but I am thankful for how God has used the cancer to change me. Once again, God has used something that is potentially devastating for good – even though I am now an albino avocado.