Sunday 10 March 2013

Letter to a pastor with cancer

My dear brother in Christ,

Tonight at church you told us you have cancer. We had gathered as we always do. To make time for God's eternity. To hear and say the great earth-shaking things. We sang the psalms and from our lips the mighty words rolled down like rivers, gushing up from ancient wells. One of us got up to read the parable of the prodigal. Our hearts were broken when he left his father's house, our hearts were glad when he turned his face towards home, our hearts were nearly bursting when his father ran to meet him, and when, to our amazement, he told the other son, We had to celebrate. We listened, we prayed. We brought gifts and silence; we brought our hearts and lives. We invoked the holy name of God. We tasted powers of the age to come.

But it was only after all this that you stood behind the great big open book and told us, quite calmly, that you have cancer. That it is aggressive. That the prognosis is not good. That your family is in shock. That your home is haunted by grief and questions. 

You told us you didn't want the cancer, you wished you didn't have it, but you are looking for the way of Christ in this. You told us this would be your new path of discipleship, a new form of following. You reminded us of the command repeated more than any other in our scriptures: Do not be afraid.

Some were weeping; I heard them. Your wife was crying too. You asked the congregation if you could lay your ministry aside a while to follow Christ down this new path. You asked (as if you needed it) our permission. You told us you would pray for us. You named the name of Jesus (a name you love), a strong name (as you have always loved to call it). 

When you spoke to me you said you wished you were high up at that friend's cabin, up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. You would rest yourself under a tree nine hundred years old, covered by its shade under the sacred silence. You said there is a place up there you love to walk, where if you leave the trail your footprints would be there a hundred years and in all that time no one would ever see them. 

You told me: Soon I will need prayers. Soon I will need that cabin in the mountains, the place my wife loves best. Soon I will need some serious margaritas.

Standing in the gathered congregation, you told us: In all this I hear Christ calling. You told us: I do not want this, but I want to know Christ and to follow where he leads. 

I thought: pastor. 

I thought: friend. 

I thought: O my brother. 

Pastor, brother, friend – I will pray for you. Each Friday I will go hungry, and hollow out my spirit so that the prayers come out clear and right. And just in case God will not hear me, I'll ask my children to pray too (for children cannot pray wrong, they don't know how to do it any way but right). 

You stood behind the Bible and addressed us with the Christ-light burning in your eyes. You raised your hands and voice in blessing and sent us out to follow in Christ's way. We sang the last song. I thought: another week, and then another, and then the Great Joy will be upon us. We will celebrate the Easter feast and sing the songs of death's defeat.

Tonight I saw death's shadow and was not afraid. The light I saw in your eyes was Easter light, my brother, and to the God of Easter morning I will pray. 

Yours, &c.

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