When I first saw the invitation to blog about cancer and the church, I have to admit (and now will have admitted to all of you) that I thought: “Yikes. I guess I’ll have to come up with something else to write about this month.” It’s not that I’m such a Pollyanna that I wouldn’t consider writing about something sad or scary, but I just didn’t think I had anything to offer on the subject. So, I started writing a totally different post, and, as the Holy Spirit directs, it ended up being about cancer after all.
In my last call, I was blessed to call a cheerleading parishioner, commissioned ruling elder (CRE) colleague and fellow left-brainer a friend. When I first came to that church, he took me out to lunch at and overwhelmed me with so much information that I retained nothing. Shortly afterward, he sat down in my office and told me the story of how he and his wife had visited the church; after a tour and hearing it was a fourth-day community (supportive of three-day spiritual retreats, such as Tres Dias or Road to Emmaus, that encourage church leaders to be strong spiritual leaders in their congregational communities), he had “torn up their church shopping list” on the way out, knowing they had found the right place. Over just a couple of years together, he came on staff as a volunteer CRE and enhanced our pastoral care presence and pushed us to be technologically relevant and business-minded. I learned a lot from his secure, selective comments and commanding presence.
And then, out of nowhere it seemed, he had knee surgery and developed a cough. He resigned from the church to take care of his health problems. It seemed abrupt, but not necessarily suspicious (after all, he was retired). But, the cough would not go away, so he went into the hospital for tests. I went to visit him after work one day, and while he assured me I needn’t have come, he said, “Sit down and stay for a bit.”
We chatted, and he eagerly asked if I had taken the Myers-Briggs personality test yet.
“I knew you would ask that,” I said. “So I finished it the other day and I wrote down in my phone what I am because I keep forgetting. One sec,” I said as I fished my phone out of my purse. “Okay, here it is.”
“Let me guess,” he interrupted. “You’re an …”
“I-S-T-J,” we said together.
“How’d you know?” I asked.
“Me too,” he smiled, almost winking. He said he’d known all along, and maybe that is why we always got along so well.
As we sat there chatting nonchalantly, he told me to call his son if anything happened to him and insisted upon giving me his number. I put in my phone, thinking it was premature. It was one of those not-so-pastoral care visits where we were more colleagues and friends than pastor-parishioner or pastor-pastor. And then, days later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was serious, but only he and God probably knew how serious.
I remember wanting to go see him again, but it was trying to leave town just after Christmas. He and everyone else assured me that I could just go see him in the new year. He didn’t make it that long. He died not even a week later while I was out of the country.
Perhaps I didn’t think of this story as a church-cancer story, because it is more the story of an unforgettable friend who taught me something even more unforgettable in his death. When it comes to cancer, there’s no such thing as “having time.” I felt the Holy Spirit compelling me to see him before I left, and I ignored the Spirit. After he died, I promised not to do that anymore. I’m ashamed to admit this failure, especially as a pastor of a church who is supposed to be “in tune” with God. Even worse, I was in tune, but I didn’t listen. When it comes to cancer, it doesn’t really matter if you’re wrong about the amount of time a person has left; you’ll never regret spending time with them right now. Cancer is unique and unpredictable. And, it’s ugly when someone dies unexpectedly. And it’s ugly when it takes a long time. And it’s ugly even when the timing is expected. The Holy Spirit lingers in that ugliness and incites us to act. However inconvenient, uncomfortable or illogical it seems in my thoughts, I listen to the Spirit within me and my heart more now.
I’m sure my friend is chuckling as he reads this – that through his untimely death from cancer, I – a self-described logical, realistic, numbers person – have learned a lesson of the heart from the Spirit and from a fellow linear-thinking, fact-sharing, analytical person. God never ceases to amuse me, and the delicacy of the Spirit is strangely overwhelming.
Not surprisingly, the details of his memorial service were all spelled out on his computer and his service was orderly, yet tender. His wife smiled when she thought of him “up there” getting his list of questions answered, because he had so many for his God. One of my questions for God has always been about the cause of cancer and the cure; maybe I will get that answered some day. But I think I’ll listen to the Holy Spirit with my heart in the meantime.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.