Within the past few weeks, I have begun to hate cancer.
One of our key church members, SoYoung Gu, was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. One week after she was diagnosed, she was admitted into a hospice. Liver cancer moves fast, and hers was already spreading. There is no medical cure available. SoYoung is two weeks older than me.
SoYoung is many things to us. She is our friend and "sister." She was one of the team members for our mission trip to Tanzania this summer. Until she got sick, she was a regular member of our music team, a member of the church Advisory Council (board), and Brett and Emma's piano teacher. She is a woman of many talents and interests: piano, violin, cooking, crafts, language. She always has a beautiful smile to share - even now.
Sarah and I have experienced her illness with deep personal pain. We have been to visit her almost every day since she found out. Her pain is increasing now, and sleep is difficult. Starting soon, we will need to limit visitors from our church, so that she can get rest.
We talked about it in church yesterday for the first time. (SoYoung wanted a little bit of time to talk to people individually.) SoYoung wanted to participate in the worship service and to play piano one more time, but her health has decreased so rapidly that she was unable to come. We spent about 10 minutes praying for her at the end of the worship service.
Now we are beginning to think of ways our church can express our love for SoYoung. Some floating ideas: setting out a crafts table near the snack area so people can make cards for her, helping people send her video greetings, videoing Brett and Emma playing a few songs, establishing a memorial scholarship fund. (By the way, if anyone here would like to help with these, or if you have other ideas, please let me know. We need to start implementing these ideas this Sunday.)
Within the same week that we found out about SoYoung, I also found out that two other church members had pending tests for cancer and that my aunt's cancer is gaining strength again. I was greatly relieved to find out that both of the other two church member's tests came back negative - no cancer for them!
In a confluence of events, we have also had several positive events in our church: a marriage, a birth, a new pregnancy, anniversaries, birthdays, and graduation. It feels so strange to move from SoYoung's bedside to buy Valentine's Day flowers or to go swimming. But somehow these celebrations help with the mourning.
Honestly, I don't know how to pastor well during this time. All I know to do is to encourage people to be open and honest with God and each other about our feelings. This brings us face to face with mystery and unknown and pain, yet one of my deepest prayers is that we will find God in the mystery and unknown and pain. I pray that our community will grow together and grow toward God, not away. This is irrefutable evidence of our mortality. Life is an uncertain gift. Maybe this experience will help us all to live with more gusto and faithfulness.
I don't believe SoYoung is dying for this reason (to strengthen our church and to help us live more faithfully). Actually, I don't believe there is any good reason SoYoung is dying. I don't believe "everything happens for a reason." I don't believe that God has "called her home" or that God is up there in the sky pulling cosmic strings arranging the time of our deaths.
I believe that this cancer and all cancer is junk. It is just part of this broken, messed up (yet still beautiful) world. I don't believe God causes cancer or earthquakes or AIDS or any other disaster or illness. I believe that crap happens, and God hates it just as much as we do. The problems of this world are shrouded in mystery. They are things too great for us to know. Sometimes, some of the mysteries are lessened through science or reason, but they are mysteries still.
I believe that God is with us no matter what happens. I believe that God loves us no matter what happens. I believe that God can bring good out of almost any circumstance. I believe that God is always working for healing or restoration.
But I also believe that sometimes, it's just time to die, time to die with grace and peace. So far, I have not said anything in the worship service about SoYoung dying. She and I have talked about dying well, and I've talked about it individually and in small groups. Maybe I'll talk about it this week as we prepare for Lent, for Lent is -at least in part - a season about our mortality.
SoYoung is at peace with death. Unless God works a miracle, she will die fairly soon. She accepts that and is facing it with courage. She welcomes a miracle, but she knows she can't cause one or work one up simply by her effort. Death is. Death comes to us all. Usually, we cannot choose the time or the place or the manner of death, but it comes. As for me, I feel like the best thing we can do for now is to show SoYoung our love and care and to support her as she gives all her energy to these last few steps of her journey.
For any readers out there, I would appreciate your prayers for SoYoung and her family, for our church, and for me as I try to be a faithful pastor and friend.