A burden I need not carry

We’ve just celebrated Easter… but I’m left thinking about Maundy Thursday and the word God spoke to me during our church’s service that evening.

I really didn’t want to go to the service, with its focus on Christ’s final days, his death, and burial. Anything related to death makes me uneasy lately, and I often land in a place of sad contemplation about my own mortality, which I’d prefer to avoid, thank you.

I was ready to skip the service, but thanks to a rain-out of my son’s sporting event, I had no excuse. Out of duty I went, fully expecting to become emotional at some point and leave feeling burdened and depressed. When I arrived to find the only light was from candles that we’d extinguish one by one throughout a tenebrae service, my sense of dread intensified.

Instead, what I experienced was a release. During a time of reflection, I felt God illuminating within me an understanding that I’ve been focused for too long on death—my own, that is—and it was time to lay that down. I felt suddenly quite at peace, and somehow lighter.


When I got the diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, I mentally and emotionally packed up what I thought I knew of my eventual demise into a tidy pack, and I’ve carried it along with me every day since, sometimes adding to its contents along the way. Some days that pack has been just a subtle weight pressing on my mind and emotions, some days it has been heavier than I can bear, and some days I’ve almost forgotten it was there. But it has been an ever-present accessory.

In our gathering, it was as though God was asking, “Will you let me carry that for you?” In that moment, I let him take it.

And by the end of the service, I was convicted that Jesus did not go to the cross and rise to new life so that I may waste time pondering my own end. He died and rose again and filled me with his spirit so that I may have abundant life—now and until the moment I draw my last earthly breath and even into eternity. And as for the last breath part, I don’t get to know when that will be or what it will look like, and any energy I spend contemplating that is energy I’m not spending living fully.

I’m sure I’ll wrestle the metaphorical pack away from God and insist on carrying it myself again. I’m stubborn that way. But maybe the realization of what I’m doing will come more swiftly each time I snatch it back and feel its weight. And maybe one day, through prayer and practice, I’ll fully surrender it.

The Importance of Remembering

rearview mirror

Recently, a friend used the phrase “looking back to move forward” in the context of remembering and reflecting on where you’ve been in the past as you prepare to enter a new life season. I think a long look in the rear-view mirror is wise practice and can be especially helpful when the new season you’re facing is stressful, painful, or uncertain.

More often than not, a trying or uncertain time bears resemblance to a previous one. And even when a tough situation seems entirely novel, it’s likely there are some elements that relate at least in general character to past events.

So, why should you look back, particularly if it means recalling something troubling from your past?

Obviously, you can learn lessons from past events. How did you handle the prior situation? What worked well, and what should you do differently? Even if you find yourself faced repeatedly with a particular challenging circumstance, you can approach it differently each time, armed with the knowledge gained the first time or two (or ten). Thinking back to what happened before allows you to glean wisdom to apply to your current situation.

You can also find encouragement. When standing on the shores of something unknown or difficult, it’s helpful to recall when you survived such a time before—and maybe even came out ahead. Remember ways in which you persevered, think of prayers that brought peace, and consider practices that helped you cope or gather your strength.

And you can find comfort and support. Who among your friends and family was most helpful when you went through a season like this before? Thank those people for their past support and ask for it again. At the same time, who made the situation worse? Perhaps you need to give yourself some space from those people for a little while, or be direct in telling them what’s helpful and what’s harmful.

For Christians, this looking back is a practice we’re instructed to undertake. Deuteronomy 32:7 tells us: “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you.” And there are many other verses in the Bible telling us to remember. In the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” there’s a line that says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come,” a reference to Samuel 7:12: “Samuel then took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer (which means “the stone of help”), for he said, ‘Up to this point the LORD has helped us!'” Remembering God’s past faithfulness can fuel our faith in the current situation.

In what situations in your life would it help to take a reflective look back and raise an Ebenezer, figuratively or even literally? And think about others in your life—could someone use your help in remembering to encourage their journey forward?

Choosing to Journey with God, Even in the Rocky Places

cross on the path

Our church recently held a retreat to begin a season of exploring the concept of pilgrimage. Our speaker defined pilgrimage as an intentional journey with God to find God, together. After hours of prayer and discussion, we were given the task of making a mini-pilgrimage around the building and grounds. We were instructed first to pray—to get in touch with God’s loving presence with us—and then to walk around, looking for something that spoke to us of God in our surroundings, keeping our eyes and heart open to see or feel what God had to say to us. Once we found it, we were encouraged to talk to God about it and what he had for us in that object or space.

I wandered around the fellowship hall, noticing signs and scripture verses on the walls. I stood looking out the window, regarding nature—the bright sunshine, the snow on the ground, the bare trees.

And then I saw it—a painting of a rocky path with the verse from Proverbs 3:6 underneath: “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path.” I’ve always liked that verse, so my eye stayed there a minute. And then I looked at the path. It was covered in stones and looked really hard to walk on. It also went uphill, leading to a destination around a bend that was not visible in the painting. Everything about that path spoke to my heart in this season of learning to live with cancer. It made sense that God would draw me to that image, as though saying he understood how I felt. That was comforting. I rested in that idea for a moment.

God being the good and loving Father he is, though, he had so much more for me in that painting. As I stared at it, I shifted my focus ever so slightly, and then I saw what God really had for me. Reflected in the frame’s glass was the stained glass cross in the sanctuary behind me, which by this time in the afternoon had the sun beaming through it. And where I was standing in relation to the painting and that cross put the cross directly on the path. THAT was God’s message to me. He is with me on this cancer journey—in fact, he is going before me on it, he knows each stone I’ll encounter, and he’s preparing the way.

The second day of the retreat, we were each given a little stone (seriously? a stone?) as a token to remember that we are all pilgrims, and God is with us.

Living with this disease is not anything I’d choose. But I can choose to make it a pilgrimage—to journey through it with God, seek to find God in it, and do it together with those I love around me. I don’t even have to look very hard to see God in this experience–he makes himself pretty obvious, if I’m at all attentive. A few days after the retreat, I received a card from a friend who frequently sends me notes of encouragement. On the front was a path that looked similar to that painting. Further affirmation of what God had spoken to me at the retreat.

Being sent to “the back of the plane”

On a Christmas flight, we paid extra for “economy plus” seats to have a little more legroom and board earlier to ensure we got space in the overhead (we hate to check bags). This put us just a few rows behind first class, so when it was time for a restroom break, I followed my husband up to the bathroom at the front of the plane, which was by far the closest one to us. As I stood there waiting my turn, a flight attendant asked if I was seated to the rear of the plane, and before I could even answer, she said, “There are two bathrooms in the back of the plane you can use” and motioned for me to move on. Somewhat embarrassed, I mosied down the long aisle to the rear.

When I returned to my seat, I noticed the flight attendant had closed the little mesh curtain that separated first class from economy class. I resented having been told I wasn’t welcome at the front of the airplane, and the curtain seemed to add further insult. It also seemed ridiculous. You could see right through it, and it did nothing to dampen sound between the passengers in the front and those in back. Yet, its message to those of us in the “cheap seats” was clear—stay back there where you belong.

That curtain made me stop and think. I had essentially been told that, at least in this circumstance, I was “second class.” The fact that I could see through the curtain to first class made it worse. I could see everything I was missing: the special service, the better drinks and snacks, the spacious and cushy seats… and the uncrowded bathroom.

Those feelings for me ended when that flight did. But I couldn’t help thinking that there are people for whom that’s a common experience—not just on an airplane, but in many of aspects of life. People who are told they aren’t welcome, who get the message they are somehow “less than,” who are treated differently because of what they look like, where they’re from, or how much money they have.

This reflection called to mind a conversation I had with a friend last year. Like me, he’s married with a few kids, has a professional job, lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, drives a nice car, and attends church regularly. Unlike me, however, he’s African American. I had asked him to talk with me because my assumption had been that because his life was similar to mine in many ways, his life experiences and his interactions with employers, neighbors, store owners, police, etc. must also be similar to mine—even though his race is different than mine. Surely, race alone can’t really be enough anymore, not in this day and age, to influence how one is treated. After many stories in the news, though, I thought perhaps I should actually talk to someone “different” from me to test my assumption.

I learned that my assumption was very wrong. His experiences—many things being equal to mine—were, in fact, quite different. As a child, in his own middle class, mostly white neighborhood, police had stopped him while walking home to ask what he was doing there. As a teen/young adult, he had been pulled over repeatedly by police for no good reason because of his skin color. While shopping, he had been followed or watched by salespeople with extra scrutiny. And he had watched as servers gave the check to his wife, who is white, instead of to him. In subtle, and not so subtle, ways he received the message he was somewhere he didn’t belong, he wasn’t trustworthy, and he wasn’t worthy of respect.

My little incident of being told to go to the back of the plane to use the economy bathroom was really no big deal, and because I don’t often experience the “we don’t like your kind” or “you don’t belong here” message, I was able to shake off the anger and embarrassment I felt within moments. But I haven’t been able to shake off the lingering questions that resulted. What would it feel like to be someone who encounters that message frequently? How jaded would I become? How angry or dejected? What might I start to think about myself? And about the world around me? Would I try to rise above that message, to prove people wrong? Would I become defensive and act out against the people and systems sending that message? Or would I simply start to believe that I’m not equal, welcome, worthy, valued, or capable—would I stop trying or hoping?

As importantly, in what ways do I communicate to others around me that they are not welcome, not enough, not valued? And why do I do that? Do I honestly believe those things about some other people? Do I think on some level that if others are “less than,” then I can be “more than”? Do I even realize I’m sending that message?—how can I be more self-aware in that regard? And how can I work to instead extend hospitality, foster inclusiveness, and promote dignity of all people—including, and especially, those who are different from me.

These are weighty questions. But given the division in our country and in our own neighborhoods, they are questions worth pondering.

Welcome, 2018!


So, I’m a day late with this, but here’s a quick New Year’s blog….

I had a conversation with a dear friend yesterday, during which we acknowledged that it was good to turn the page on 2017 and start looking forward to a better 2018. But then I thought, we shouldn’t put pressure on the new year to be anything special or different—it’s just a year like any other, sure to have its ins and outs, ups and downs. You be you, 2018.

We all have as much control over the status of the new year—good or bad—as we have over anything. That is to say, we have little control. (I need this reminder often.)

BUT—we do have control over how we respond to everything that 2018 holds. And we also have control over how we greet each day of this new year.

So, right now, I’m setting a goal for myself to awake each day with gratefulness that I have another day on this earth, despite any challenges the day might present. And I’m pledging to find some way to spread hope and encouragement on each day. Maybe that’s a quick text to a friend who’s struggling. Maybe it’s a word of thanks for a kind deed or kudos for a job well done. Maybe it’s a smile to a complete stranger or the gift of charity to someone in need. And maybe it’s the gift of grace for myself if I stumble and give way to negativity, fear, or frustration.

Who wants to join me in this endeavor?

Bring on 2018.

What a Year… and What Blessings

It’s Christmas, and that means it’s time for Christmas cards. Typically, I produce a little letter or photo collage to recap the key moments of our year. This year, however, has been a bit of a kick in the teeth, and I had no desire to remember and reflect on it. Indeed, I had been feeling that we could not bid farewell to 2017 quite soon enough.

Then I had a conversation with a friend about keeping our eyes open to the blessings around us. She said that was easy for her to say when life was going well, but it must be really hard to do when you’re dealing with something difficult, like my current health situation. I started to agree with her but realized instead that I had often found it quite easy–maybe even easier than usual–to see blessings in the midst of the recent trials. It is almost as though my soul was actively seeking all that is good, right, beautiful, and true–clinging to each act of kindness and grace–as a means of balancing the hard, the wrong, and the broken I’ve been encountering.

True, 2017 was filled with grief, illness, and change. At many moments, I felt every foundation of my life shake. My heart broke. I questioned the deepest tenets of my faith. I prayed for strength just to take the next breath.

silver lining

Yet, in each of those moments, even the worst of them, I could point to a blessing. Thinking back over the year, there have been many blessings, too numerous to count, really. From the tangible and the practical to the supernatural. From sources I expected and from out of the blue. Reminders that I am not alone. Reassurances in the throes of worry. Joy amid tears. Relationships deepened. All silver linings to cloudy circumstances.

I’m still not writing a Christmas letter this year. But I am taking time to treasure the gifts I’ve been given, some of which have been precipitated precisely by the tough things we’ve faced. And I’m looking to 2018 with hope and a desire to spend far more energy recognizing and acknowledging the good than dwelling on the trials.

Beauty, Purpose, and Peace in Life’s Transitions


Fall has always been a time of contemplation for me, and it tends to stir a mix of emotions each year related to change and loss and beauty and grace.

This fall, I’ve been feeling something decidedly different, as the cancer diagnosis of this summer has me pondering my own mortality. Being told that you have a disease for which there is no cure, and to which you will likely succumb in a foreseeable time frame, can skew your thinking quite substantially. These days, my brain flip-flops often between the extremes of “I have to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do and become the best person I can be and leave a positive impact on all humanity” and “What does it really matter? If I’m going to die, I might as well just live comfortably and coast to the finish line. How much can I really change in a potentially short time anyway?”

A couple days ago, I received a tremendous gift in this regard that has helped me land (at least for the moment) in a place of hopefulness for this season. On a mini-retreat with a church group at a local farm, we had the opportunity to spend an hour in solitude and silence, to spend some “quality time” with God. I found a large stone on the property next to a bright yellow tree and decided to just sit and stare at nature around me for awhile. I emptied my mind as best I could of myriad distractions and asked God to talk to me. Within a few minutes I heard a gentle voice telling me it was OK to let go of the tight hold I’ve kept on my emotions, that I needed to face them to move forward. I was suddenly overwhelmed by deep sadness and gripping fear.

Now, I have allowed myself to feel fear and sadness and anger over my cancer diagnosis before, but only in short little snippets. I’m a busy women with work to do, family to care for, life to live; I don’t have time to sit for a long spell with my emotions laid bare. But there on that stone, knowing I had nothing else to do, no one to interrupt me, nothing demanding my attention, no one to explain myself to, I curled up into a ball and wept. And I began to let God into that space that I’ve tried so hard to avoid, to keep hidden even from myself.

God and I had a long conversation through my tears. And then he used my surroundings in nature to teach me a few lessons about this time in my life.

I looked again at the golden tree next to me. Its yellow leaves danced in the breeze, intermittently catching the sunlight and becoming even more vibrant. And I realized those leaves were nearing their end. They’d lived through their life cycle–as buds, as bright new leaves in the spring, as hearty green leaves enduring the summer heat, and now as autumn’s golden leaves, some them already drying around the edges, waiting for their turn to return to the earth. And those leaves were beautiful. More beautiful, in fact (at least to my eye), than when they were green and lush. It is in the journey toward their death that their beauty is most notable. Lesson number 1: Transition, even death, can be a time of beauty and wonder.

I picked up a few leaves that lay near my feet and looked at them closely. One had a little tear on the edge. Another had some tiny parasites on it, causing the surface to pucker and feel bumpy. But each of those leaves had done its job for the tree, providing respiration and creating energy from the sun, despite its imperfections. Lesson number 2: We are all broken, but all still have a role to play. In my case, part of my brokenness is my disease. But I still have a purpose here. I can still serve my family, my community, and my world, and do whatever work God calls me to.

Then I watched several leaves flutter to the ground. How poignant to think that I was witnessing the moment of death for those leaves as they separated from the tree. What struck me was how quietly and gently they fell. Lesson number 3: Perhaps in the transition from life to death, there can be peace.

While sitting a little longer with these thoughts, I stared at the ground, and my eyes fell on a single blade of grass moving as the wind hit it. I remembered that it is God who made the wind that moved that tiny blade of grass. In fact, God made that blade of grass. Indeed, he formed the seed it grew from, made the soil it lived in, and provided the water and sun it needed to grow and survive. Lesson number 4: If God cares for even the grass, and is in control of its tiny, temporary life, how much more does He care for me. (OK, that revelation is not my own–that’s pretty straight from Scripture.)

I left that morning feeling drained… but in a good way. I had emptied some of the bucket of grief I’ve been carrying around–not only about my own situation, but about some significant losses we’ve experienced recently–and it was cleansing for my soul. I also left with a greater sense of peace than I’ve had in quite a while. My circumstances have not changed one bit. But I received assurance of God’s presence in them. And perhaps more importantly, I was reminded of how powerful and positive (even if a little scary) the practice of making space to bring myself fully open and vulnerable before God can be.

The empty hole in the toothbrush holder

toothbrush holder

It struck me hard several days after our elder son left for college: One of the four holes in our toothbrush holder was empty, and it would remain that way. I think I cried my first big tears over his departure that morning. And that toothbrush holder became a metaphor for the new dynamic in our home. We are still a family, of course, and it’s not like he’s gone forever, but there is a hole. Our daily life goes on with only three of us, not four. I’ve come to realize this is not bad, exactly–there have been real blessings in our new threesome–but it is different.

Last night, our son returned home for fall break, his first time back in our house since August. After getting ready for bed, he placed his toothbrush in its rightful place in the plastic holder. I smiled at seeing the empty hole filled. But his toiletries bag also sat on the bathroom counter–a reminder that his presence in this house is temporary. He’ll be leaving again soon.

Last week, for his university’s Family Weekend, we spent some time in his dorm, he showed us around campus, and we met his friends, several of whom joined us for lunch. It’s clear he is making his home there–his toothbrush has a new rightful place in his dorm room (even if that place seems to be wherever he tosses it on a bookshelf instead of in a proper toothbrush holder). This is how it should be; it’s what parents hope for. Yet, it’s bittersweet to think that our house, here with Mom and Dad and Brother, will only become less and less his home throughout this year and into the future.

And in a couple years, our younger son will venture off to college, too, creating another shift in our family dynamic. Sigh. We might have to buy a new two-hole toothbrush holder.

Drinking from a Fire Hose–and I Need a Break

When we learn a friend has a serious illness or other health condition–or a financial problem, marital issues, trouble with a kid’s behavior…you name it–we often rush in with advice, share anecdotes of what worked for us or another friend faced with a similar situation, pass along helpful articles and websites, and ask if they’ve done this or that. This is natural. And we do it because we care. We want to help our friend fix what’s wrong. We don’t want them to suffer, and if we have information that might be useful, well, we need to share it with them, in love.


As a person now walking in the shoes of the “friend with a serious illness,” I have to be honest–I am really struggling with the outpouring of helpful information, advice, and questions. Between the information about treatments and test results I get from my doctor and physician assistant, the nurse follow-up calls to discuss my meds, the nutritionist’s guidance, AND everything that is passed along by well-meaning friends and family, it’s like drinking from a fire hose–or, perhaps more accurately, a bunch of fire hoses.

Cancer treatment is complicated enough on its own. Keeping up with regular blood work, remembering to take pills every day at the same time, going in for check-ups every couple weeks and a shot once a month, scheduling various tests. All while keeping up with our teenage son at home and trying to stay connected with our other son at college, trying to be a decent wife, and not letting the household fall into utter disarray. Oh, and working a full-time job at the same time. Now, toss in the texts, emails, phone calls, and personal conversations from a couple dozen people who want to share a nugget of information, tell you about some supplement or other product, recommend a doctor, or suggest a clinical trial.

I desire to hit cancer from every angle, to know that whatever and whenever the outcome, I did every single thing I could do, within reason, to fight this disease and live well at the same time. So every suggestion that comes to me ends up being considered. Maybe not initially–sometimes my reaction is, no, that’s crazy or thanks, I’m happy with my current plan. But the information continues to swirl around in my brain, and I eventually mull it over and play out in my mind. That means, in addition to managing treatment and family and work, I’m also spending considerable mental energy researching what the healthiest diet is, trying to fit regular exercise into my schedule, thinking about removing toxins from our environment by switching all our cleaning and personal care products to something nontoxic/organic, looking into water filter systems and researching glass storage containers to replace plastic, finding time to meditate/pray to relieve stress, reevaluating my choice of medical team (which I am happy with, for the record), and formulating lots of questions for each doctor’s appointment.

If you got a little tired reading through that long list, think of how I’m feeling–particularly when it’s all layered on top of the stress that comes with a metastatic cancer diagnosis, the thoughts of my own mortality, and the emotional effects of hormone manipulation.

So, I have a request (for the couple dozen folks who might read this blog). For now, please just file away any helpful suggestions and information sources for awhile. My mental inbox is overflowing and I need to process what’s before me already. Feel free to reach out and tell me you’re thinking about me or ask how I’m feeling. But no more information or suggestions, please. Not for a little while. Not even if you’re convinced you have the 100% sure-fire cancer cure (because, let’s be honest, that doesn’t yet exist).

In fact, I suggest we apply my request to the way we approach any of our friends who enter a time of crisis. When we have information to share or a story of hope we just know will be helpful, let’s ask our friends if they would like to hear it and acknowledge that we realize they might feel bombarded and now might not be a good time. Here’s some suggested language: “I know you’ve got a lot to digest right now. A friend of mine followed a diet that really helped her while she was in treatment. I’d like to share it with you, but only if you’re interested and ready to think about stuff like that.” This gives our friends a choice to accept new information into their mental inbox or to opt out. They may welcome whatever you’ve got. Or they may say, “I might want to hear about that later, but right now, I can’t deal with that.” Odds are, if they’re at all interested in the topic you mentioned, they’ll ask about it down the road. In the meantime, we’ll avoid adding to the mental chaos they’re trying to sort through.

Hold both my hands

Last month, I heard for the second time, “It’s cancer.” Metastatic breast cancer this time, to be more specific. Metastatic. That’s a terribly scary word. All too recently, we saw what that can mean. It’s not good.

In June, my mother-in-law died from metastatic cancer, from a sarcoma on her leg that spread to her lungs. In her final week on this earth, I watched her grow weaker and weaker, seemingly by the hour, until she couldn’t get out of the little hospital bed that hospice had provided. I watched in agony one night while she struggled to breathe, as her sons and daughters-in-law and other family members took turns comforting her the best we could while hospice nurses administered various medications to bring her relief. We buried her 7 months after finding out the cancer had spread. This experience is the filter through which I heard my oncologist’s words.

Metastatic cancer is treatable, but not curable. My oncologist was blunt in that regard, and medical literature backs him up. No false promises here. But chemo and other drugs can mange it, can keep the tumors from growing or spreading for awhile, often for years. “It’s like diabetes or other chronic diseases,” my oncologist says. (I’m sorry–diabetes, when managed, doesn’t typically eventually kill you. So, not quite the same thing, doc, but thanks for trying.)

The prognosis for metastatic breast cancer is better than for my mother-in-law’s sarcoma. There are more effective treatments and more options for treatments. Still, the best I’ve been offered is the possibility of keeping the disease at bay to prolong life, and hopefully with a decent quality of life.

I know, I know… people have lived for many years past the prognosis they were given, there are stories of people whose cancer went into remission when doctors said it was impossible, and we don’t know what new medication they’ll come out with. I also believe God still works miracles today. Trust me, I am grasping onto hope that I can defy the odds.

But while I hold firmly (desperately) to hope in one hand, I cannot avoid holding in the other hand the very real possibility that my time could be relatively short–certainly shorter than I’d planned. Most of the time, I keep that hand–the hand of fear, sadness, anger–tightly clenched and hidden behind my back, where neither I nor those I love can see it. Yet, it’s there. And sometimes it relaxes open and out slip thoughts of suffering or heartbreak. In those moments, either a lump forms in my throat and the tears flow or cuss words flow and my fists flail in a rage.

Those around me want to hold the hand that contains hope. When they reach out to me in support and encouragement, they grab hold of the hope hand, and if that other hand starts to slip into view, they’re eager to push it back, out of sight. Few want to acknowledge what’s in that other hand, let alone actually talk about it.

But there’s no denying the other hand exists; I can’t pretend it’s not there and ignore what it contains. That’s not healthy. I need to be willing to unclench that fist occasionally and confront the fear, disappointment, sadness, and pain it contains so I can process my circumstances fully, so I can be prepared emotionally and materially when the end arrives–whenever that is. And I need the people who support me to be willing to hold BOTH of my hands in this journey–the hopeful and the fearful. Even if it’s painful for both of us.