#78 – Cancer Journey: Surprising Gratitude, Grace Unmistakable

Published by Douglas & McIntyre

“Joy,” says Richard Wagamese, “is a spiritual engagement with the world based on gratitude. It’s not the big things that make me grateful and bring me joy. It’s more the glory of the small” (Embers: One Obijway’s Meditations, 140).

As Canadian Thanksgiving approached last weekend, I wondered what it would be like for me. For my journey with cancer took an unexpected turn a couple weeks earlier.

A scheduled scan showed that my chemo pill continues to be effective below the neck.  However, some new lesions became visible in my brain. This necessitated a five-day course of palliative whole brain radiation, ending the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

So we’ve embarked on a new stage of my journey with cancer. Yet in the midst of it all, I’ve witnessed myself living in the “glory of the small.” Grace Unmistakable has found me during recent days and especially recent steroid-fueled nights.  These are still the days of miracle and wonder, which leave me grateful for lucidity.

Richard Wagamese asserts that “what defines me is not what I do but what I receive, and I have received in great measure” (155). Here are ten gifts I have recently received, which together embody for me Grace Unmistakable.

Gift #1: Visits during this period by three sets of old friends from afar, bringing chicken soup, new hymn arrangements for listening, and medical knowledge.

Gift #2: Steroid-fueled energy to get some things done, such as collecting books to donate to spiritual directors and beginning pastors, and fixing a box of sermons, books and files to send to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Gift #3: Increasing colour bursts outside our condo windows, with brilliant orange and golden leaves now dotting the cityscape.

Yellow-fall-treesGift #4: A brightened sky after the rain, calling me to a lovely walk in Rockway Garden across the street, which still looks amazingly good.

Gift #5: A wonderful church service on Thanksgiving Sunday for all ages, with rousing singing.  A self-possessed middler sings two verses of For the Beauty of the Earth, one of my favorite hymns.

Gift #6: Thanksgiving dinner with friends, followed by backyard entertainment involving chickens and growing boys.

Gift #7: Members of groups I’m in, making accommodations that enable me to participate with the energy levels I now have.  The sense of inclusion and caring is wonderful.

Gift #8: Finding the music CD of my farewell service at Waterloo North Mennonite Church in 2005, thus adding two tracks to one of my nighttime play lists. The rendition of Great Is Thy Faithfulness by two skilled pianists on two grand pianos makes me smile, reminding me of my Aunt Esther’s most joyful, animated piano playing.  The Bach Chorale Sheep Shall Safely Graze settles me in God’s care.

Candle-and-iconGift #9: Lighting a long-burning tea light candle in front of the icon of the Holy Trinity, which I keep in one of my alternate sleeping/resting places. Each time I open my eyes during the night, I gaze at that glow illuminating the Trinity.  I feel myself part of the circle, directly facing Jesus.  (See blog #32:The Icon of the Old Testament Trinity). This comforts me in the night and my spirit sings.

Gift #10: Receiving this verse, which comes to me one night and feels true and right: “So we are not depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day” (2 Corinthians 4:16, CEB).

I cannot control the future.  I can revel in and be grateful for “the glory of the small.” I can embrace these days of miracle and wonder.  I can take each day and night as it comes, in gratitude.

I touch and trust Grace Unmistakable.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How has Grace Unmistakable found you during difficult times?
  • Which gifts of the season and of your community are you receiving with joy and gratitude?

Next week: A New Book!

#26—Thanksgiving Day in Plenty and in Want

I’m glad that in Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving Day early in October, while the harvest is still happening. Thanksgiving worship takes me back to the Harvest Home services of my childhood.

Praise-to-GodIn 1920, my grandfather Michael Clemmer noted in his diary the Harvest Home service at Souderton Mennonite Church – a time to give thanks for the harvest. The church was “very full” for this event, he noted.  I imagine they sang the hymn Praise to God, immortal praise, one of the few harvest songs in the Church and Sunday School Hymnal of 1902.

Harvest Home services were still happening at Souderton Mennonite during my childhood. Taking place on a week night, they made me feel energetic and thankful as we sang harvest hymns, collecting food for local needs and money for crop failures far away.  One year my Mom noted that the service was not as full as it used to be. “Are we less thankful now?” she wondered. Maybe. Or maybe in the 1950’s already we were less tied to the land….

I still love singing harvest songs. My all-time favorite is Praise to God, immortal praise, with its poetry by Anna Barbauld and its stately stand-up-and-take-notice chords by Asahel Abbot. So far, it has been included in all the Mennonite hymnals of my lifetime.

Lord-Should-Rising-WhirlwindsThe red Mennonite Hymnal of 1969 – the songbook of my young adulthood – put a whole new spin on that hymn for song leaders taking notice. It revived Anna Barbault’s whole 9-verse poem of 1772 by calling Praise to God Part I, and Lord, should rising whirlwinds Part II, then placing them on the same page of the hymnal. The 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book did something similar, putting these two parts of Anna’s poem on facing pages – # 91 and #92.

I didn’t notice Lord, should rising whirlwinds, with its strong reference to Habakkuk 3:17-18, until about 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve encouraged churches to sing these two parts of Anna’s poem back to back. For surely they belong together.

Crop failure is a huge concern in our world – whether due to war or dislocation of peoples or climate change or the capriciousness of nature. I shudder when I read Anna’s/Habakkuk’s poetry about crop failure, sick flocks and missing herds – and I’m not even a farmer.  I do remember, though, the sick feeling around home when the chickens owned by my Dad’s feed mill died off by the thousands.

I can hardly imagine the impact of v. 6-9 of Anna’s poem in an era without insurance. Anna’s language still hits us in the gut, whether adversity has to do with barns and herds and crops, or whether it shows itself in other ways. Crop failure can stand in for many other kinds of trouble.

What might it mean to praise God in uncertain circumstances? Can my soul or yours authentically raise grateful vows and solemn praise when the blessings of health or stability or economic prosperity have flown? Can we love thee for thyself alone, as Habakkuk and Anna propose? Is such a response even possible?

Maybe it’s time for us to look Anna’s questions straight in the face. What if? What if our stable world – either our personal world or the world out there – falls apart?  Then what?

When the English fall
Published by Algonquin Books

The past couple days I’ve devoured a short novel called When the English Fall. It’s written in the voice of an Old Order Amishman who keeps a diary about his responses and those of his community when a “sun storm” shorts out everything and the world as we know it falls apart. In the novel, the Lancaster County Amish are of course far better off than most, but desperate “English” quickly find them.

Early reviews indicate that people either loved this novel or hated it. I liked Jacob the narrator a lot. The moral dilemmas his Amish community faced and their attempts at faithfulness kept me completely captivated….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Do you enjoy singing harvest songs? If so, what is your favorite?
  2. How do you put Part I and Part II of Anna Barbauld’s poem together?

Next Week: The Gentle Power of Small Groups