Living with cancer
Given on Sunday 19th October 2008 at The Abbey by Revd Fred Belcher
In 1983 Bishop John Robinson preached a very moving sermon after he had been told he had terminal cancer. John Robinson was the Vicar's mentor and mine - mine when he was Bishop of Woolwich and I was a member of a group of young clergy who met regularly with him, and Eric's when John was Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. I think it was John Robinson's sermon that may have led Eric, when he first learnt that I had cancer, to invite me to preach a sermon about living with cancer. At that time I declined because I was not ready to do it. I had to come to terms with the fact that I had cancer and the effect it would have on me as a Christian. But now I can.
Make no mistake, this is not special pleading on my part nor is it a cry for sympathy. Countless people suffer from cancer. I simply want to share with you in all humility the way I try to face it as a Christian, and hope there may be some who are carrying this burden and perhaps are so shackled by a deep anxiety that they cannot mention the unmentionable word, and who may find a few crumbs of comfort from my words.
It was the Thursday before Christmas when my GP told me that an ulcer in the oesophagus was malignant. Initially I was in a state of shock and for a few moments I wept. Oh, not cancer again! I had had cancer ten years ago that was now under control, so I quickly became more positive and totally determined to fight this dreadful disease with the help of the grace and healing love of God, the expert ministry of the medical profession, the compassionate ministry of the Church, and the prayers and love of those nearest and dearest to me and of countless known and unknown people, including my many friends here in the Abbey. It was not helped though a few weeks later to be told there was yet another tumour on the spine.
I was reminded of two passages in the New Testament. One was from the letter of James in which he writes, Is anyone of you ill? Let him send for the elders of the Church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. I did send for the elders of the Church and received the laying on of hands and was anointed.
The second was from the first letter of Peter; Christ suffered for you and left you an example that you should follow in his steps. Many times during my ministry have I preached on this theme, but now it had an impact and an import that it never had before. And that is what I have been trying to work out in relation to the cancer.
It was T S Eliot who wrote, "humankind cannot bear very much reality." We Christians, above all others, should be able to bear reality and show others how to bear it, for Christ himself had to bear it in trust in his passion and on the cross. That is why a positive approach to a disease like cancer can be a part of the healing process. It means that our body, mind and spirit will be more well-disposed to let the treatment prescribed by the medical experts be effective. It also means that our body, mind and spirit will be more receptive to God's healing love and the love of all those who are praying. It is equally important, though, not to think that a positive attitude means cure. It doesn't. It is also important to know that having cancer need not necessarily mean death. To lump all types of cancers together as a death-sentence is simply not warranted by medical evidence.
A question asked by many cancer sufferers is "Why me?"; "What have I done to deserve this?" The answer of course is we do not know. There may be external causes such as radiation, alcohol, smoking and all the pollutants that are pumped into the atmosphere. And there are also internal causes such as resentment, guilt, unforgiven sin and unresolved conflicts that can wreak havoc deeply within and then manifest themselves physically as cancer or some other illness. The trouble with most of us is that we do not love ourselves as God says we should.. We find it difficult to accept ourselves as we are, and so we become dis-eased and therefore open to the disease like cancer. Whether cancer invades us by an external or an internal route, we have to see it as a positive opportunity to use it in a Christian way for God and those around us.
In his sermon, John Robinson declared that God is to be found in the cancer - and he added - as in everything else. From my own experience over the past few months, I believe this to be profoundly true. You may think this notion shocking. But think about it. We can look at this from two perspectives. First, we believe we are made in the image of God and that he is in everything within us and outside us. He is within us in our well-being and good health as well as in the darkness and pain of disease. Secondly, the story of the transfiguration has something to tell us. Immediately before this event, Jesus had warned his disciples that soon he would face suffering and death. Then on the mountain he was transfigured before Peter, James and John and was seen speaking with Moses and Elijah about his impending passion and death. In that passion and death Jesus absorbs all the sin, all the gone-wrongness of this world and takes it to the cross. He is to be found in all that sin and gone-wrongness. No wonder Paul can say of him, Christ was innocent of sin, and yet for our sake God made him to be sin. That is why we can find God in the cancer. Every single piece of our humanness, whether good or bad, has to be transfigured, or as we should say today, transformed into the likeness of Christ.
What then does this mean for those of us who are living with cancer? It means that we should not be pessimistic because that only drags us down into despair and hopelessness, neither should we be optimistic because optimism is shallow and refuses to face reality. The New Testament speaks about neither. Rather it speaks about hope grounded in a person, Jesus. He did not promise a rosy ride through life. He was a realist who trod the way of suffering and that is what he offers us. Take up your cross, he says, and follow me. Suffering, writes Paul in Romans, trains us to endure, and endurance brings a proof that we have stood the test, and this proof is the ground of hope. He concludes this thought with such a hope is no mockery, because God's love has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he has given us. The Living Bible
paraphrases this verse beautifully like this: "We are able to hold our heads high no matter what happens and know that all is well, for we know how dearly God loves us, and we feel this warm love everywhere within us (I would want to add 'including the cancer')
because God has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love." We should indeed be thankful for the hope God holds out to us. The passage that is filled with hope and has etched itself firmly on my mind is found in John's first letter: we have already passed from death to life.
Life is what God created us for. If we are to live that life to the full, then we shall all need to be reconciled with God and each other, and healed in body, mind and spirit. This is the reason for the coming of Jesus - to proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation, and to use his works of healing as a sign of the presence of God's kingdom. Notice that throughout the Gospels Jesus never cured anybody; he healed. There is a difference. To be cured is to recover physically from an illness or some disability. To be healed is to be made whole in body, mind and spirit. Jesus is concerned with the whole human personality, and often he laid hands on the sick as an outward sign of what was happening deeply within.
The laying on of hands and anointing with oil come to us straight from the New Testament and are essential for they open up channels for the Holy Spirit to work through the medical profession, through those who are praying and loving, through our pain and fears, through our negative as well as our positive moments, and for the direct healing of the risen Christ. Why is it though that some people are not healed physically? We have to admit that we do not know. Throughout my ministry I have known many who have not been physically cured, yet have experienced the healing love and presence of God in their minds and spirits that bring peace and strength and courage to accept their suffering.
One aspect of this I have found to be helpful and profoundly true is that any suffering and pain that come my way is to be seen as a sharing in Christ's suffering and pain. I have been richly blessed by being anointed and receiving the laying on of hands by those who are close to me and mean so much to me. One was Bishop John, our former Bishop of Sherborne, who, after anointing me and laying hands on me said, "Your healing has now begun!" What powerful words they are when you know you have to live with cancer. Only by immersing myself in God's love; only by sharing the cup of affliction that was drained to the full by Jesus, the only one who was indeed whole, can I be given the true life that we all desire. That is my humble attempt to live with cancer. I pray that I may respond to the Holy Spirit working deeply within me, radiate the love and joy of the risen Christ, and reflect, however dimly, the glory of God, our Father.