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Paul Amlin on Cancer & Theology

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I’ve been thinking about this blog post for several weeks now, listening intently to life around me in hopes that I would find some wise words to share. I was listening to a sermon by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wherein she talks about some things people say to comfort those going through difficult times. One of the classics she brilliantly framed was, “When a door closes, God opens a window.” Nadia’s response? “It makes me want to ask exactly where is that window so I can push them the hell out of it.” I shook my fist in the air in affirmation of her perfect response to something I heard far too often during my own journey a few years back.

You see, I am a cancer survivor.

I say that with some level of pride, but mostly as an encouragement to people like Jake and the millions of others facing this disease. My journey with the same disease as Jake began as I was racing through life to finish an undergraduate degree in anticipation of seminary, working full time as a youth and family minister, and raising an amazing son (age 12 at the time), detailing cars on the side to help pay for college, and loving my wife, Lorice, in the in-between moments. I felt like I could do and accomplish anything in those years leading up to my diagnosis.

My journey through cancer began with a lump on my neck, persistent tiredness, fever, aches and pains that gave way to visits to doctors and eventually a specialist. A cadre of other doctors and technicians and a bevy of biopsies and tests led to a surgical biopsy. My wife was the first to hear the news that it didn’t look good from the surgeon and the next day she and I sat at his desk to hear the diagnosis together. Cancer. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. What began in an individual way quickly grew to include a small community, in fact, a few small communities. That’s what I’ve decided to write about. Cancer as a communal, theological event.

I’ve followed Jake’s blog since his diagnosis. I have to admit, it has stirred some pretty uncomfortable feelings in me. Things I haven’t thought much about since my treatment have rushed back into my mind in both good and bad ways. As I watched Jake’s video blog about losing his hair and ultimately coming to the conclusion that the right thing to do would be to shave his head, I found myself beginning to experience “manly moist eyes” and I wondered what it was about watching Jake’s process for reaching his conclusion that drew out such an emotional response from me. We are, after all, the sum of our parts and some of our parts are, well, hair!

Could it be, I reasoned, that in making the conscious choice to shave my head I was relinquishing some level of control over my circumstance or acknowledging that my disease was bigger than I? Letting go of my hair meant letting go of a piece of me. I decided to do the wise youth ministry thing and sell raffle tickets for the privilege of being the one to shave my head publicly at church. I had done things like kissing a fish to raise money before, so this was no big thing. Still, it was only in the letting go that I found my way into a new understanding of my disease. You see, shaving my head in a community setting, my faith community, reminded me that my family and I were not alone in our walk with cancer.

Can cancer be thought of as a communal event? Can we think about cancer as a communal, theological event? I’d argue yes! (And… no) That’s a terribly Lutheran response, I realize this, but stay with me for an explanation. Yes because the very point of being in community is the mutual care and concern we share with each other. 

I found that while going through chemo treatments, the same type and duration as our friend Jake, my greatest supporters were found in community. Community took different forms for me. There was the community of family and close friends. There was the community of faith found in the congregation to which I belonged. And there was the community of doctors, nurses, technicians and other patients I found during treatment at Gulfcoast Oncology in St. Petersburg, FL (shout out to Dr. Knipe!). Each of these communities walked with me in my healing and in my faith. Each strengthened me in a different way.

I experienced community as family and close friends sat with me in the hospital, doctors offices, and when I could do nothing but sit in silence as they sat with me. My wife became my strength infused by God’s presence to comfort me when I was sick to my stomach of being poked and prodded and stuck with needles. She held me as a surrogate for Christ and gave me hope for a day when we would be finished with cancer. Friends like Erik Mathre laughed with me and even made fun of me (in a good way) to reassure me that I was still normal.

I experienced community through my church as we gathered as God’s people around a call to worship and praise God together. Worship was central to our identity and I cherished being a part of these worship gatherings each week. In this gathering of Christ followers I raised my voice in thanksgiving most weeks, in outrage some weeks. Still, I was surrounded by people who loved and supported me and that gave me strength for the healing journey.

I have enjoyed watching Jake and his wife buying treats for the medical staff before going in for treatment. My wife and I did the same thing! Lutherans and food, what can I say? Is it possible to experience a community, theologically speaking, in the form of doctors, nurses, technicians, and other patients. Yes! I experienced Christ’s hands and feet moving around me during treatments and subsequent visits for fluids and other medications. My physical healing met with emotional and spiritual healing in what could have been a church adorned with IV stands and blood pressure cuffs. I shared in mutual consolation with the other worship attendees, each in their own pew (or treatment chair) and each with a story to share.

Can cancer and communal theology always stand up? No, because not everyone in our communities will be willing to enter into the conversation or journey as it unfolds. I watched other patients around me give up. I watched as they succumbed to the disease for a variety of reasons without any desire to talk to me or caregivers. I watched as families and friends reached out to these patients only to be rejected with a rude rebuff or silence. Still, I suppose even the ones who sit in silent anger or surrender as well as the ones they dismiss live in a kind of community together anyway.

I found another line form Nadia’s sermon helpful here. “When someone says something so vapidly optimistic to you, it’s really about them, it’s about the fact that they simply cannot allow themselves to entertain the finality and pain of death, so instead they turn it into a Precious Moments greeting card.”

I think that’s what is behind most of the unfortunate expressions of consolation offered by our human brothers and sisters created in God’s image. People don’t say these things to intentionally dismiss the pain and suffering of the one with cancer. They don’t say these things truly inspired by God to provide comfort (or at least that’s what I think). They say them because that’s what they’ve heard others say or because they’re own defense mechanisms and rationalizations lead them to say them.

Jake asked his guest bloggers to provide alternatives to the cliche sayings too often uttered. As the blog series has progressed I’ve read some great options, including a take on one of my favorite lines as a pastor of three years. “That sucks.” But, since that one has been addressed, more or less, I can share one of the most valuable things I heard during my illness. “I care about you. How can I pray for you?”

In community we often pray for others, for the sick and dying, for the suffering, for our world, for our church. The most powerful memory for me was that another person would care enough to ask me, ask me specifically, what it was I needed them to pray for on my behalf.

The best community experiences are shared around life’s events, around our stories, and when we care enough to pray intentionally for one another.

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Paul AmlinPaul Amlin is a former professional lay youth worker and currently serves as a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Marion, IA. Paul has a passion for finding creative ways to walk with people into discipleship in Christ, and believes in finding the intersection between creative worship, music, and education to create interesting if not unique ways of drawing people into ‘being church’ today. He is a survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma.

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