What is this faith I now hold?

I have a confession to make. I struggle when asked to pray for miraculous cures or quick resolutions. It’s tangling me up inside because my faith has changed over the years, starting back when I left my evangelical roots, but more so now that I’ve lost so many loved ones to cancer.
Here’s a look inside the changing nature of my faith in God.

A few weeks ago, in June 2018, my husband played a show with friends, a married couple, who toured together with their own acts. He was excited for me to meet them because they shared so much about their faith journey. They were excited to tour through the Ville and stay overnight with us. They planned to attend our liturgy on Sunday morning. Of course, they rocked Backstep Brewery that night. Later, we sat on the back deck, drinking tea and snacking on all my usual weird healthy snacks under twinkly lights. Because of my running addiction, I retired early. When I came in from my pre-liturgy run, they were packing up. M looked peaked. During church, he clutched his stomach. He slipped to the bathroom a couple of times. When he returned, he sat through the service. I noticed his wife stroking his  back, as if channeling his pain.

christ the shepher

Within the week, M was hospitalized. Within two, he’d survived a botched biopsy on his stomach and learned he had stomach cancer. He and his wife are now focusing on M’s healing, miraculous or medical. It will be holistic, at this point, since oncologists say operations are out of the question and chemo is the only answer, though that is changing day to day as the cancer aggressively attacks his liver.

The whole string of events feels surreal and heart-breaking. He’s asked that we focus on hope and God in this. I’ve read enough about positivity and healing to buy into the clinical value of hope. (Or ignoring it, such as Lulu Wang’s family helps Grandma do in this real life account).

Yet I’m struggling with how to pray for M, because my sister’s cancer. Actually the cumulative affect of so many of my loved ones deaths by cancer has altered how I pray, and the nature of what I believe.

After Naomi died on Nov. 4th, just shy of her 33rd birthday, my faith changed. Kathy said Naomi’s death would change me. Explanatory note. Kathy is my dad’s cousin’s widow. Her husband Randy was like second dad to me in high school. He was a Reynolds through and through. He reminded me of my grandfather, my dad’s dad. He never lost his thick full head of hair. Only in the end did his booming voice, his belly laugh, his stocky build fade. I remember him to the end as a man of prayer and church. In my growing up years, he and my grandfather would choke before passing up a chance to joke. Randy died of pancreatic cancer within about nine months of his diagnosis. He died on Nov. 5, two years before Naomi died. When he died, Naomi was just beginning one of her better periods. She rode out to his funeral because she was inclined to do all things family, and a coterie of siblings took the car trip out to Indiana to be there for Kathy and our cousins. We stayed in a janky hotel together outside of Blufton and cried a lot. In the months since, Kathy became my grief doula.

While Randy went through surgery and chemo, I went to visit him and his eldest son, Caleb, a Nazarene minister with whom I bible-quizzed during high school. I sat with Caleb, Randy and Paul (Caleb’s brother-in-law) during what I think was Randy’s first chemo. He described the placement of the tumor and the surgical procedure to treat it. I already knew from Facebook that he’d survived months of mystery symptoms and gallbladder surgery, all of which eerily mirrored my father-in-law Dean’s misdiagnosed gallbladder problems and the pancreatic cancer that killed Dean. As Joel and I visited Kathy and Randy in Indy from time to time, we saw how their faith journey also mirrored my in-laws. I bit my tongue about the speedy decline my father-in-law experienced in spite of all the similar”good news” his physicians gave him.

In 2004, Dean had gallbladder surgery and kept getting sicker. When his doctor finally realized it might be cancer, he referred Dean to an IU specialist promptly. Dean heard his cancer was detected early. Good news! The “whipple surgery” was the most advanced treatment. Good news! Some of the stats thrown around suggested Dean had a fighting chance. After his surgery, he felt pretty good, so the holidays seemed hopeful in spite of the C word.

Dean died within a week of his 70th birthday, hours after Joel and I celebrated our tenth anniversary in August 2005. My father told my husband, “You’ll feel like an orphan. You’ll want to talk to your dad about something but you won’t be able to call him.” Those words, and the words of our priest, “This isn’t how we were created, to see someone we love die,” got my husband through the first weeks.

We went camping on Labor Day weekend to unplug. We sat by the fire and listened to coyotes howl. We stared at the stars. We began the long slough of grappling with the death. It changed my husband. His hands shake now when he is stressed. He wouldn’t talk about death, even as he prepared to bury parishioners or as nearby parishes joined up to create a green burial cemetery. For years, in fact through my MFA thesis on end-of-life issues like grief, death planning and green burial for Orthodox Christians, he shut down any discussion of my research.

“I don’t want to talk about death, hear about death, think about death,” he said.

I think I bear some responsibility in that. While we suffered through near-poverty, health problems and an semi-oppressive atmosphere during his years at divinity school, we’d conjecture about the why suffering of certain types had plagued us since his dad’s death. I proposed that all this suffering would make it so we could identify with, empathize with, and serve all manner of people once he was placed in a parish. I remember sitting on the couch late one night, when he was emotionally shot, and he lashed back at my proposal.

“If one more person says ‘maybe your dad died to help prepare you for the ministry’…”

That became a refrain until years later, when I apologized for ever intimating anything like that.

I learned to think about death as happenstance, impersonal, unavoidable, with chances at 100%. We will die and the longer we live, the more people whom we love will die before us. It’s how we who go on living make use of it afterwards, not because that’s God’s intention, but because we can turn good to bad and bad to good, according to our needs or wants. My husband wanted to do something useful with his spiritual self when he went to seminary. After that, he has had to use his experience with grief to ease others through their grief. He’s good at it, but it’s the one aspect of his ministry that I think he hates most (except financial paperwork and silly theological spats).

I tell you all this because my faith swerved when Naomi got sick. At first, I pleaded with God for healing or an even trade, her life for mine. Then she lost her belief in God, and I realized I’d been praying wrong, at least in part. I hadn’t factored in soul-health. So I started praying for body and soul, which is in our Orthodox prayers. I’d now paid attention to the souls part when I talked to the “Physician of our Souls and Bodies.”

Then, Naomi died. Because Kathy said this would change me, l just tried to sit with void and change. I tried to perceive, not resist, it.  I felt, still feel, like a part of me was cut out. I have a missing appendage, the part of her that made me a different and better person. Shortly after Naomi died, another very young woman I knew started losing her life to breast cancer. Then a litany of friends received grave diagnoses. One day, I realized I had stopped praying for miraculous cures. Right now, it feels as if uttering such hopes would steal away my last bit of hope or faith. Is this what losing your soul to a dementor feels like (ref. Harry Potter)?

Sts. Kosmas and Damian working miracles
God uses humans in divine work. Humans wrote every book of the Bible and doctor saints Kosmos and Damian used medicine and prayers to heal.

What is this faith I hold now? Do I believe God no longer does miracles (outside of modern medicine)? It’s possible. It’s possible I’m grief-blind or just confused or jaded. Afterall I  grew up in a pentacostally-kind of church where the church would lay hands on you, the minister anointed you with oil, and if that didn’t work, they took you healing services. If those didn’t work, you heard outlandish ‘splain-aways or blame. In the Orthodox Church, people pray Akathists to saints and Jesus for healing of cancer. They speak of oil and myrrh gushing miraculous icons that cure cancer or infertility or other diseases. It’s not that I poo-poo this as snake oil. I just don’t pray hastily for a miracle, or rather blindly. God forgive me for this, if it is doubt. I can’t help that I shy away. Because….

Because all of us are going to die.

Because in some countries, mortality is ordinary. For instance, the children’s mortality rate is obscene. Because in the USA, the infant and mother mortality rate is lower than many other developed nations, particularly among certain minority groups.

Because why does God heal some and not others.

Because I don’t what healing means if one person survives cancer after years of prayers and treatments, then dies of cancer, though having had many happy returns in the midst of the disease.

The thing is, God does miracles. Some are in the heart or head, some in the body. And, sometimes, we don’t recognize them. Maybe some we mislabel, like calling a misdiagnosis a miraculous healing.

I’ve not stopped praying, but my prayers are less for moving mountains and more along the lines of changing the human. I am praying now like it’s what we do with what we are given. Do we turn good to bad? I’m struggling with this. I’ve pretty depressed and negative since Naomi died, more than my usual skeptical, contrarian, glass-half-empty, melancholic levels. I need prayer for spiritual healing. My prayers these days more like the following verses:

“Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Ps. 90: 14

People frequently allude to Job 14:5 and Psalm 139:16, about how God numbers our days. Okay, But do we as the Psalmist prays for us to do? Do we number our days aright? What do I need to do to conform to God’s long view? Take the long view, Maria, I tell myself.

Or my other prayer:

“Give me beauty for ashes. The oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness that we might be trees of righteousness, a planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.” Isaiah 61:3

Or

“A man’s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?”  Prov. 18:14

Here’s the thing. There are loads of verses about God identifying and becoming one with the mourning, the sick, the broken-hearted. There are plenty about miraculous healings too. They call the elders of the Church for the laying on of hands (James 5:14-15 and Hebrews 11:1). They ask the righteous man to pray because his prayers are powerful (James 5:16). They affirm that God heals (Jeremiah 17:14, Psalms 30:2, Mark 16:17-18). There’s also the opaque verses of Phil. 4:19 and 1 John 5: 14-15.

Do you hate me yet for sending references that I’m not quoting? This tends to annoy me. My point are the numbers of verses all over the continuum of healing ideas. My point, if nothing else, is that I don’t know what to pray except from my brokenness. I haven’t lost my faith. I may be doing one of two things: a) losing my grip, as in relinquishing what I cannot control or b) living my way to the answers through the questions, as in getting real with reality without losing mystery. I’ve always identified as a mystic as much as contrarian and melancholic. So here I sit, in the quandary of a self I cannot know. If I can’t know myself fully, how on earth can I purport to have the answers regarding what cannot be seen or quantified?

I’m a crappy person. I’ll pray for you, but I’m not good for the words of miraculous healing. Right now, I’m just stuck in this hope:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. Rev. 21: 4

How to make a totem

Five

Seems like a solid dimension on which to carve this sacrosanct emblem, a narrative of my sister’s history.

Five

what are the chances she’d survive with colo-rectal cancer

Five, or less, the percent chance of survival if diagnosed at stage four.

The pole acts as a visual illustration. It narrates oral history. It displays important characters to evoke its meaning. These characters have family significance.

Five

The number of years ago my sister was diagnosed.

Sunday, it started on a Sunday, the day of Resurrection, day of worship, day after the day of rest, day after Sabbath. The first day, which became the seventh in contemporary culture. The work week usually begins on Monday but on Sunday, she was working. Her doctor called her husband to rush her to the ER because her hemoglobin was at 7.0. Normal is above 11.0. At 7.0 a person can die.

Seven

Naomi asked if she could finish her shift at a car parts factory. Hilarious.

Thirteen- February thirteen two-thousand thirteen. Anagram. 02/13/2013

The day before Saint Valentines, Andy posted a cryptic picture of a nurse call button. Wait a few hours and you’d have seven twice over, the slaughter of Saint Valentine.

Dad called less than 48 hours later.

Three

The year of survival when I proposed, “Let’s get tattoos on your fifth year anniversary of survival.” Naomi said, “I don’t think I’ll make it.” She got a tattoo that year. I did too. Separately. Both were about what matters of life and death.

How to make a totem:

After hearing the story, the carver begins to conceptualize the design while looking for the right tree. After hearing the story, the carver begins to conceptualize the design while looking for the right tree.

I meant to wait for forty for the first ink. I put a cross, meant to be small, like the Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem or Coptic Christians wear on their wrists. Copts ink so that if they are martyred, they are buried as Christians not Muslims. That was 2016. By then there were 4% or fewer christian in the middle east. The rate of survival of colo-rectal cancer to five years was 5% or less, coincidentally.

Naomi inked a sparrow and light bulb on her left shoulder. Not a cross. She’d fled her faith. Sparrow for her Julia Sparrow, lightbulb for her Eddie. For you lettered on her shoulder, she carried them on her shoulders, new stories for their names on her shoulders. Not sparrow, as in His Eye is on, not Eddie as in faithful old Grandpa Eddie, preacher, believer, prayer-maker. Sparrow for bird. Bulb for her scientist.

We carved in ink on her skin. Indelible, never come off until you’re dead, maybe not even after that ink.

Cross. Sparrow. Bulb. For you. For which you?

There’s a dead tree that signifies something. Did I dream of the Rood?

Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell,
which came as a dream in middle-night,
after voice-bearers lay at rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
born aloft, wound round by light,5
brightest of beams. All was that beacon
sprinkled with gold. Gems stood
fair at earth’s corners; there likewise five
shone on the shoulder-span 1 ]. All there beheld the Angel of God…

How to make a totem:

The best time to harvest a cedar tree is in late summer to early spring. 

After a tree is selected, a test hole is chiseled into a flare at its base. This is to check the grain of the wood and if the interior of the tree is rotten. 

“I’m so glad we did this,” the GI doc said to her. Old and Asian but like Dad, she said. He stayed as did the nurse while she cried. Andy and his mom cried in a circle with them. Ten centimeters of webbing, stretching, itchy fingers wanting to claw her to death. The interior of her had bled from the rot since before Julia was born two years before but she couldn’t afford the testing her midwife suggested. She asked me about my debilitating pain, my dramatic weight loss. She kept secret the blood.

How to Make a Totem…the tree feller then addresses the spirit of the tree with a prayer. This prayer thanks the tree for its contribution and asks it to fall well and in a particular direction.totem

 

How to carve cancer out of Naomi: test, hurry up and wait, administer chemo like controlled fire. Hope it doesn’t light up the whole of her. Pack the expanding cavity with radiation, once a day for days. The burn is short, a few seconds to minutes, but precision in placement takes time. The location of the cavity around the tumor determines how to fell the rest of the tumor. It burned her base, burned her inside and out. Her kids looked for her in the bathroom or the bedroom and she shat in their presence while they played around her. She weakened and tottered as she was felled.

How to Make a Totem

Then before the rough draft work was done the pole was hidden from the public so the final product was revealed when the artist wished and not sooner. Now the artist creates the design in their head.

How does the designer design, I want to ask. But I need to meet a totem carver. How does a carver decide what image is the foundation and toward what heights does the carver aim to achieve? What images come first, second, third, topsies?

When I sat through her oncology appointment, she and I both wanted to know what was in the mind of the carver, the doctor, the medicine man, the artisan, measuring with his tools.

We turned to the Designer when the artist man circumlocuted. You, The Designer, who grew her from seed, what were you thinking? As if the Designer felled her, as if He delights in the slow death of one tree.

In a forest, a dying tree does a beautiful deed. She signals deep to the ecosystem around and gives up her resources. Tiny fungi carry bits of her to the nearby trees. She gives up herself to strengthen the resources of others. But once the rot eats her out, she gives up nothing of her own will. She is cut off. She rots. All that is mystical becomes humus.

The sickness rotted her. She, the wood, asphyxiated, first faith, then humors, then energy, last family, then aspiration.

Fissure of faith, some chemical that produces and sustains it, ran dry. It seeped into those around her, prayers, silent meditations, firm conviction. in the cores of those around her. A change in the forest, a drying, a shortage of Thujaplicin or hinokitiol, the compound of a tree’s immune system. The inner core of her soul dried out.

How to Make a Totem

All designs are freehand drawn on the wood in charcoal. 

So first comes the burn or burned up bits lay the design. But death plays a role in the quotidian. Winter, Spring. Autumn, summer. Death, rebirth. The seed dies. Dries. Falls. Is consumed. Is shat. Is abandoned. Freezes. Forgets. Then a change. Every season changes, every season threatens death- drowning, drying, rotting, freezing.

How to Make a Totem

During the rough carving process the wood is kept damp so it doesn’t dry out and crack.

Water. Infuses and out of this, comes beauty. The Grand Canyon. The climax in sexuality. The clay on the potter’s wheel. Skin, bone, muscle. The surface of a planet. A plant.

 

Two years before she died, Naomi dehydrated daily because of a failing surgery to reconstruct what the tumor ate, her sphincter. Man could not make what nature perfected. Most days she shriveled. Her failed reconstructive surgery transformed her toilet into a waterfall, her body into a desert. She lay collapsed on a tableau of lush life and rolling into the canyon of rock. She could shrivel to death.

You can’t squeeze it but there’s water in a rock. An exhibit in the Smithsonian grades the H2O in various rocks.  Of course. There’s water in the rock. In Exodus, Moses knocked it out. On Mars. On the moon. There’s water in the rock. Life wants to be. And something cuts it off.

How does the carver keep the wood damp? As I spray my polished piano and 150-year-old floors? Or as the potter moistens clay? Or with the deep humidity of the tropics? Or like the infusion of saline injected into a vein in an arm or leg vein?

Naomi came to my house with her children the year before she died. It was July hot. Humidity in which one sweats, fevers, dehydrates. She shriveled like a raisin puking and crapping while I played in the pool with her kids. We left her to frolick at the zoo and lick ice cream cones. She spewed and shat. When we came back, she lay white and shaking.

“Do we need to go the ER?” I asked. “Not yet,” she said. I texted her husband. I made hot pink play-dough with her kids. At the the eleventh hour, I rushed her with my hot pink palms to the janky ER of my tiny town.

“I have stage 4 rectal cancer,” she said to the admit nurse. Like magic, we were in a room and saline throbbed into her veins. I made jazz hands at the desk to speed up her second infusion. At midnight we left and she felt normal again.

She did this weekly for a year. We whispered plans for her funeral. A plain wood box. Dust to dust. Nothing but carbon and disintegration.

She drove six hours to Ohio the next day with tunnel vision. Her kids bounced like electrons from one side to another of her car while she tried to sleep off  the headache of the valley of dehydrated bones.

Designer, the closer she came to dying, my forest dried up. I felt faith contracting, a tightened muscle, an damaged organ.  My mysticism, always a part of me, started to die in this dry heat.

How to make a totem

After the rough portions were carved out, the carver then concentrated on the finer details. Carvers use careful precision to capture the textured appearance that enhances the figures. During this stage, the characters are brought to life.

At this stage, different tools were used.

In her last days, we gathered around her. We carried on in semi-normal, writing her on her skin. She who would want to watch the new season of Stranger Things, we let it flicker as we listened listless to the pattern of her breath. We steadied her to the bathroom, to her bed, back to the couch in an hour. We aspirated her tracheal tube. (What cancer rotted her came from another strain, a weak warp in the soft tissue of her tongue and throat.)

The family gathered. We sang her songs, her comfort hymns, stripped of their mystery. We held vigil, a wake, whiskey, imagery, photography, stories, worship, intimacy. Friends and family piled on top of each other, sitting on the floor, on chairs dragged into her room, keeping the cool room warm enough for each other. Body heat. Turning her. Pushing the pain button.

How to Make a Totem

The two most common colors on the Northwest Coast totem poles are red and black. These colors have different significance and meaning among First Nation people. 

A white wood coffin. Red, autumnal flowers, the lingering black of Halloween. Hideous over-dramatized haunting. She died four days after All Hallow’s Eve, three after All Saint’s Day. We

How to Make a Totem

After the totem is completed, often in secret: The community as a whole is invited to participate in the carrying of the pole from the workshop to its home. 

She lay in state, in wood, as stiff, from Saturday to Monday. The siblings went to set ink, like charcoal into the skin, to be carved with indelible ink of her. Birds, words, broken metaphors to link us to her before the community began to descend. Cousins to witness the pale wood, the red flowers, the black dresses as we processed from home to grave.

How to Make a Totem

To raise a pole you first have to dig a hole where the pole is to be set.

First, the widower must contract with the hole diggers, who never dig on Sundays. He signs contracts with outsiders who bling like cheap car salesmen. There’s always a hireling, a middleman, taking change. But Naomi wanted a proper treatment. We carved this totem with our own sweat. We guarded her final minutes in secret. We completed her anointing in secret. We heaved her from the dying room, to the patio, to nail her coffin, in secret. What we did not do in secret was write the rest of her narrative.

How to Make a Totem

Raising a pole could take hundreds of people depending on the size of the pole. The raising could be broken into small events, if this is the case then braces were needed to prevent the pole from falling or shifting during these breaks in activity. 

This is work for those who know the process and the art, who care for the product. This is not for hired orators with banal procedures. This is for the singers, storytellers, writers, witness, mourners, beloved, the inner circle.

How to Make a Totem

The purpose is to acknowledge all those people who contributed in any way, either they fell the tree, they provided boat transportation, carried the pole, sang ceremonial songs, recited blessings, invited people, and cooked the food, etc. After the feast, invited guests then return to their own homes to relate to others what they had witnessed.

https://www.sfu.ca/archaeology/museum/exhibits/virtual-exhibits/how-to-make-a-totem-pole/how-to-make-a-totem-pole–continued-.html

 

Cancer Lamentation

1 Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
4 More in number than the hairs of my head
are those cancer cells who devour me without cause;
many are the complications who would destroy me,
inner voices accuse me falsely.
What I did not cause
must I now worry about?
5 O God, you know my folly;
the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
6 Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of infirmity,
O Lord God of hosts;
do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of cancer,
O God of Israel.
7 It is for your sake that I have borne what you have given me,
that pain has covered my face.
8 My body become a stranger to me and my kindred,
I feel like an alien in this state.
9 Yet I cling to my zeal for you, love of your house has consumed me;
the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
10 When I humbled my soul with sickness and fasting,[a]
they insulted me for having faith.
11 When sickness rendered my skin like sackcloth,
I became a byword to them.
12 I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate,
and the drunkards make songs saying “give up your hope.”
13 But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.
With your faithful help 14 rescue me
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from all these afflictions
and from the deep waters.
15 Do not let the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the Pit close its mouth over me.
16 Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good;
according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
17 Do not hide your face from your servant,
for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.
18 Draw near to me, redeem me,
set me free because of your enemies.
19 You know the insults heaped upon those who hope in You,
Do not let this be shame and dishonor;
my foes are all known to you.
20 Insults have broken my heart,
so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none;
and for comforters, but I found none.
21 My body takes food as poison, Nothing quenches,

for in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
22 Let their pride be a trap for them,
a snare for their allies.
23 Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,
and make their loins tremble continually.
24 Let them know this pain so they may find kindness,
and let them encounter their own fragility.
25 May their faithless be a desolation;
let no one trust in their things.
26 That they may not persecute those struck sick,
and those whom cancer has wounded, they not attack still more.
27 Add shame to their conscience;
may they have no acquittal until they see God.
28 Let them know the fear of death and oblivion;
let them not mock the righteous.
29 I am lowly and in pain;
let your salvation, O God, protect me.
30 I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
31 This will please the Lord more than money
or fine things.
32 Let the poor and mournful see it and be glad;
you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
33 For the Lord hears the needy,
and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
34 Let heaven and earth praise him,
the seas and everything that moves in them.
35 For God will save Zion
and rebuild the cities of Judah;
and his servants shall live[c] there and possess it;
36 the children of his servants shall inherit it,
and those who love his name shall live in it.