Saturday, September 27, 2014

Don't Deny Your Cancer

We met some people recently for the first time, and learned they have cancer. One couple talked about how they just deny it, they don't talk about it, they don't say the 'C' word.

That struck me as wrong.

For one thing, I don't know how that is possible. My wife, in the two and a half years since diagnosis, has had to talk about it. Just this week she spent more hours on the phone with doctors' offices trying to set up appointments, get questions answered, and deal with other aspects of this disease. Even though people say my wife looks good (and she does), there is still a lot going on and I don't see how pretending otherwise is possible.

But it's also not healthy to deny cancer. To deny it is to let it take the upper hand, to own you. To deny cancer is not to beat it but to give it power. To really fight this disease, and you have to fight it, you have to face it head on. You have to get to know all you can about it so you can attack it strategically.

As a Christian, I would have to say that denying cancer--or any trial you may be going through--is to deny Christ. The Bible is replete with assurances that God is with us through the storm, through the trial. To deny your caner is to live in fear instead of faith. Having cancer is not pleasant, but denying it doesn't change facts or attitude. And denying cancer, and therefore denying the opportunity for spiritual growth and perseverance and character, is to deny yourself the opportunity for blessing in the midst of trial.

My wife and I have done the opposite. We have not hidden from cancer. We have taken it head on. We speak its name, the way Christ spoke the name of demons when casting them out. We have prayed and asked for specific prayers as we fight cancer. And we are better for it.

Cancer has also given us opportunity for witness. My wife tells people in stores, at restaurants, and out walking all about it. This opens conversations and starts relationships. And when we start talking about cancer, we end talking about Christ and give those we talk to hope.

Just the other day, this came back to us. Walking the pier at Grand Haven on a beautiful early fall night, we saw an older couple getting back into their car. The woman was obviously battling cancer. "Keep enjoying sunsets," my wife said to them. When the woman looked at us, my wife explained: "I have stage 4 cancer, and you have to take every day as a blessing, enjoy life. Tonight's sunset is gorgeous isn't it?" The woman responded. "Yes it is! I'm stage 4 too. It's been 25 years now."

Wow. A 25-year stage 4 survivor. We have learned not to look at statistics, because they are based on averages and if there's anything we hear a lot it's that everyone is different. But we know that a stage 4 diagnosis usually means about 6-8 years before cancer comes back and treatments can't overcome it. So to meet a 25-year survivor was a pleasant encouragement. No denying it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Theory About Fear of Death Bolsters Faith

(From the September 11, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It seems lately that I am surrounded by death. From this newspaper I learned of the deaths of three staff members of Grand Haven Schools, a fellow community columnist,  and the young son of a local family. Meanwhile celebrities Robin Williams and Joan Rivers recently passed away. In addition, I attended funerals for the father of a friend and the mother of another friend.

I did not know most of these people. But the sudden increase in the news of deaths is striking. The people range in age from child, to middle aged, to senior citizens. They are common local folks and international celebrities. The causes of death vary. It is a reminder of mortality.

Then I got an invitation to attend a speech on campus about the subject of death. I haven’t attended the speech yet, but I read a book chapter written by the speaker. Essentially, this speaker will hold forth on “mortality salience”, or being conscious of death, and something called “terror management theory,” which posits that human beings, being conscious of their inevitable death, are in danger of being overwhelmed with anxiety. People respond by constructing cultural worldviews, which vary but have in common the “psychological function of providing meaning and value in the face of death.”

These worldviews range from religious conceptions of an afterlife to leaving a legacy of accomplishment or accumulating wealth while alive. This latter worldview is the subject of the speech he will give next week: how fear of death leads to conspicuous consumption.  In other words, people are so uptight about eventually dying that they buy a bunch of stuff while they are still alive just to distract themselves.

I’m an open-minded guy, so I can see how there is some truth to this. But I take issue with the over-generalization of this theory—even with some empirical studies he mentions—to all of humanity. Some may consciously or unconsciously buy lots of things as a distraction from a fear of death. But there could also be more variables, such as trying to keep up with social pressure. Or maybe they simply did well in life and can afford to have nice homes, cars and other benefits of wealth.

I also would challenge the idea that all or most people are out-of-control spenders. Here again, certainly that is evident in American society. In fact the Wall Street Journal recently had an article about people with six-figure salaries living paycheck to paycheck because they can’t control their spending. But I know many people who live simply, spend frugally, and are not attracted to mere things.

While I am a thoughtful academic, I also am unashamedly a Christian. I subscribe to the Christian “worldview” that the speaker coming next week considers to be, like all worldviews, a fiction. (Never mind that his theory is also a worldview and subject to consideration as fictitious by others). I believe with billions that that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a victory over death. That is a not a fiction I cling to in order to ease anxiety about the truth of death. It is a truth I profess to challenge the fictions this world throws at us.

The author concludes that humans will be better if they gave up these various psychological functions, accepted our “puniness and ultimate mortality,” and “consume life instead of being consumed by consumption.”

I wonder if the author realizes how much his own assertions mirror the teaching of the Bible. The word  “puny” is used in some translations to describe man’s condition relative to God. The inevitability of our mortality is a frequent theme. There are also many cautions against greed, consumption and the “love of money.” A famous passage asserts that “it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”

But the issue of fear of death is where Christianity diverts from this secular terror management theory. The phrase “do not be afraid” is replete in the Bible, spoken by prophets, angels, apostles and Jesus himself. The Christian Gospel teaches that rather than accepting death as inevitable in the manner of ancient stoics, we can accept that Christ defeated death on our behalf by dying on the cross, and being resurrected. There is nothing we can do to earn eternal life, we can only confess our sins and accept the gift of salvation. And we are not to consume life because we will one day die, but live in grateful joy and glorify God because death is not the end.

I will listen with interest to the speaker next week. But I’ll tell you right now that I am not going to admit to a fear of death or denying the inevitable. On the contrary, I accept my mortality without fear, and precisely because of that I won’t deny the Gospel of Jesus Christ.