From Ashes to Alleluias

[1]The two texts for the meditation this evening have each held significance for me for years. First, Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Second, II Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

[2]Pastor Holm suggested, during our conversation regarding this meditation, that I might wish to base my reflections on my experiences as an oncologist. Since his invitation many images, memories, thoughts, and emotions, some of them extraordinarily powerful, have surfaced. They have as much to do with my frequent visits to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, my love of music, and my roles as son, brother, husband, son-in-law, graduate student, teacher, and father as they do with oncology. Although I think about my faith and the practice of medicine and oncology daily it has been surprisingly difficult to focus my thoughts for this evening into an 8-10 minute meditation. I have a new found respect for those who must prepare sermons frequently. It is my hope that this meditation will contribute to each of your Lenten journeys, and also to our journey together as members of First Lutheran Church.

[3]Two experiences from the last week provide a ground for what follows. Friday evening, as I was driving our baby sitter home, she told me that she was to begin a process in school that would, as she put it, “tell me what I’m supposed to be good at and what will make me happy.” She turned to me and said “I know you are a cancer doctor, but what is it, exactly, that you do?” I told her that oncologists help to diagnose and stage cancers; they then address a complex array of factors-most importantly patient goals and values-in order to develop a treatment plan unique to each individual patient. Oncologists also, I said, frequently accompany patients in their journey at the end of life. “Sounds stressful,” came the reply, followed immediately by “Do you love what you do? Are you happy?” Taken aback (after all, she was only a high school sophomore), I hesitated somewhat, eventually offering a reply worthy of a politician. “Well, uh… I find a great deal of meaning in what I do,” I said, sidestepping completely whether or not finding meaning in what one does equates to loving what one does, and how this may or may not relate to happiness and personal fulfillment. Happily the conversation shifted to her dreams; she hopes to become a pediatric cardiologist and serve underprivileged inner city children.

[4]On a different day last week I was walking down a hallway on the third floor of Saint Mary’s Hospital. It was hard not to overhear the conversation of a couple behind me. I heard a woman say “Oh, there are the gloom rooms.” “Huh?” came a male voice in reply. “You know, the gloom rooms-that’s the oncology unit.” “Oh,” said her companion. I winced but kept on walking, wondering what kinds of experiences had led her to such views.

[5]Do you love what you do? Are you happy? Do you find meaning in what you do? What are your dreams and life aspirations? Where are your “gloom rooms”?

[6]Perhaps during this Lent you, too, have reflected on your own life, your own personal “ashes” and “alleluias.” I have been extremely fortunate in my life, but have had some “ashen” moments. I recall vividly my very first Little League game. I was on the bench until I pinch hit in the bottom of the last inning. The bases were loaded, there were two out, and we were one run down. The stuff dreams are made of, a chance to be a hero-and I struck out (I sometimes think I never really recovered from this event). On a cold, windy, gray August 1979 day my sister and I visited Dachau, one of the Nazi concentration camps outside of Munich. We walked together, silently, through the grounds. We were overwhelmed, voicelessly asking Why? How? Our discomfort was increased markedly by a woman who, inexplicably, carried her child across the ropes to have their picture taken by the crematory ovens, as if they were at a routine tourist attraction.

[7]I have had many alleluias in my life. Graduations, my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, participating in uplifting and powerful performances with choirs, bands, and orchestras, and being present at the births of our children. Most powerfully for me stands Karen’s and my wedding, and the ongoing celebration of our live together.

[8]There are also events that I recall as both “ashen” and “alleluia” moments. I remember coming home from spring break in Texas in 1978 with my mother and sister. I had fallen asleep in the front seat of our station wagon. I awoke while flying into the back seat as the car rolled several times after sliding off an icy overpass. I rejoice that all of us survived, but I still recall with awful clarity my first waking image of that morning-my sister, who had been driving, screaming in pain and terror, silhouetted against the shattering windshield as her hand was smashed between the windshield and the steering wheel as we entered the first roll.

[9]I believe that there is a profound and deeply ingrown human need to move through experiences of “ashes” to experiences of “alleluias.” “Ashes” to “alleluia” stories have been embedded in human civilization since antiquity. Consider, for example, the legend of the bird called Phoenix, present in different forms in Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese cultures, and transmitted through Western civilization by the likes of Shakespeare (Odin’s Raven) and Hans Christian Anderson (The Phoenix Bird). More recently, J.K. Rowling has made the phoenix of central importance in her immensely popular Harry Potter series. In the Greek legend the phoenix was an eagle-sized bird of scarlet and gold plumage. Only one phoenix lived at a time; it was always male (of course). As its death approached, so the legend goes, the phoenix built a nest including the finest and most fragrant spices. The nest, ignited by the power of the sun’s rays, would become a funeral pyre. The phoenix met his death on the pyre, while singing the rare, beautiful phoenix song. From the ashes that remained the next phoenix would arise, thus renewing the life cycle.

[10]The practice of oncology is replete with experiences of “ashes” and “alleluias.” There is the devastation of the diagnosis, no matter how gently delivered. There is the fear of treatment and side effects and diminishment of quality of life, the always-present fear of recurrence, suffering, pain, abandonment, loss, financial worries, distrust, death; the list could-and does-go on and on.

[11]But there are “alleluias” as well. There are the triumphs, the cures, the phoenix songs of those who “beat the odds.” These “alleluias” are wonderful, and not to be minimized. And yet, in my mind, these victories are “easy” when compared to those situations in which treatment options have been exhausted, and patient and families, together with their care-givers, are brought face to face with the realities of death. It is in these moments, in my view, in which true respect, compassion, and mercy grow. Reconciliation, acceptance, forgiveness, forbearance, and peace are common attributes of these situations, at their best.

[12]I have been enormously privileged to witness this numerous times. These are experiences of unrivaled intensity-sorrow, joy, tears, laughter, shared intimacies, and, often, genuine love. I cannot, based on these experiences, easily accept the shallow alleluias brought to us by much of popular culture, and occasionally by believers. We need a more fully developed theology, in which Easter Sunday is maintained as a defining moment of Christianity, yet that does not minimize the Good Friday depths that many experience. Perhaps such a theology could help us minister to those around us more effectively.

[13]Do you love what you do? Are you happy? What are your dreams and aspirations? Where are your “gloom rooms”? Is there a human yearning for transformation and rebirth? Ashes? Alleluias? Which is more real for you, this Lent?

[14]There are many things hanging on the wall of my office at work. These things are not diplomas (in fact, I’m not sure that I know where my diplomas are right now); instead they are meaningful notes and mementos from patients and families, art work from my children, pictures of our family, pictures of bears in our back yard, and pictures from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area-loons, moose, flora, waterfalls, sunsets. These images are intended to create an ambience of peace in the midst of the demands of each day. The newest picture is of Split Rock Lighthouse, perhaps one that some of you have seen. It is taken on an overcast, calm, fall day threatening rain, the usual sunlit brilliance of birch and poplar muted. The lighthouse stands as a sentinel, quietly, almost humbly present, amidst the surrounding natural splendor. This piece reminds me that after the mature, solemn glory of fall comes the cold, stark-but still pregnant-death of winter. It reminds me of the courageous patients and families that have taught me that even in the midst of the soon to come ashes-the “gloom rooms”-one can still hear the phoenix and alleluia songs of rebirth, that even in the midst of death we have each other and signs of God. It reminds me that even in the midst of ashes we have the humble hope of justice and mercy, of walking together with each other and in service to God; that even in the midst of death we can, indeed, march, dance, and sing in the light of God, carrying forth an alleluia ministry of transformation and reconciliation. Amen.