Two by Two

Passage: Mark 6:1-13
Date: July 8, 2018
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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There are some remarkable things in the passage that Eileen just read. One is that when Jesus was in his own hometown, he was limited in his power. “He could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Another remarkable thing is the power of God in his disciples.Jesus sent them without money, without even a change of clothes. But he sent them out in teams of two to bring healing and wholeness. It seems that the power of two together in relationship brings healing and wholeness.

Fred Rogers said that “Love is at the root of everything: all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it.” Ultimately, though the world often suggests otherwise, the greatest power is not in wealth or security. It’s through relationship, love.

I have the privilege of seeing this every third Saturday of the month as Westminster holds a service of healing and wholeness. Then, our prayer team, two by two, prays for healing and wholeness. It’s mysterious. We know that sometimes wholeness comes through a healed relationship, or a deep sense of peace, and sometimes physical healing. But we are not in control. Keeping these themes in mind—that love is at the root of everything and that on the journey, we are not in control—I decided to read you some writing by my late husband, Daniel Newman. Yesterday was the second anniversary of his death due to cancer. His words impart some wisdom about what we don’t control and about the importance and power of our work of love as partners. The remainder of this sermon is our work together. By Daniel Newman:

The End of (My) Days

I am dying. I don’t mean like everyone is, as in the saying “nobody gets out of this life alive.” I mean that the overwhelming probability is that I will be dead within the next 3-6 months. I thought it might be useful for me to share what it is like to live with this reality.

First, a bit of background. I am 58 years old. Until fairly recently, I thought that I would live to age 96. Though completely arbitrary, this projection is not entirely unreasonable, as Mother and all her siblings have lived into their late 90s.

Quite surprisingly, there has been no cancer in any blood relative on either my mother’s or my father’s side of the family, except for my paternal grandfather, who had some kind of lymphoma. It was therefore quite a shock to me when I came down with a rare form of bone cancer, chondrosarcoma, at the age of 48. After failed attempts to treat it without surgery, I had my right proximal femur (hip and thigh bone) and a lot of surrounding musculature removed at the age of 49.

After the surgery, I went from being an avid athlete, hiking, biking, running, and doing martial arts, to someone who would never walk again without a cane. However, the surgical margins were clear, and I was cured, or so I thought.
Three years later I felt a lump in my right thigh and had to have a local recurrence surgically excised. My walking became even more limited, but at least I was cured. That is until 3 years later, the fall of 2013, when I developed a cough that would not go away.

Tests showed that the cancer had spread to my right lung and the tumor had actually spread to multiple sites in both lungs. It could not be surgically resected. And my oncologist explained that in this cancer, radiation wouldn’t work, and response to chemotherapy would be dismal. He told me to get my affairs in order, as I would be dead within 6 months.

But that was not my plan. I am by nature stubborn and a fighter. I avidly researched, networked widely, and came up with a roadmap to treat my cancer with a sequential alternative approach. I would start with the gentlest, least invasive choices and progress to riskier, more invasive treatments only if the lighter approaches failed.

I was very optimistic and confident; one might even say I was defiant. As time went on and each successive approached failed to shrink or even stop the progression of the tumors, I held my position that my story would end like a Hollywood triumph over adversity, rather than a tragedy.

In November 2015, I received my last treatment. Cutting-edge, complicated, and potentially very powerful—it didn’t work. I felt worse afterwards, and my tumors didn’t shrink. It was also the final rabbit in my hat. At that point, I had to admit that the cancer had triumphed and I had lost.

The overwhelming probability is that I will be dead in 3-6 months. At first, I found this realization to be shocking. Despite having known about my cancer for a decade, and therefore contemplating the possibility of my death for a long time, it is almost surreal to know that my demise is imminent.

I am still somewhat surprised that my fondest wish, and the willpower backing it, combined with the love, prayers, and good wishes of those in my world, are not enough for me to win my battle. It is a stark and emphatic reminder of who controls the outcomes in this world, and it’s not me.

I must admit being more than a bit annoyed at those who believe that with enough concentrated intention and meditation, or prayer and invocation, cure is available to anyone. Dr. Larry Dossey, who has studied and written about “spontaneous healing” extensively, makes it very clear that well intended, highly spiritual and pious people can still die from cancer, while rogues and ruffians without a speck of compassion or spiritual depth may survive. The likes of Krishnamurti and Wayne Dyer are included in those who died of cancer, despite their spiritual prowess. . .

No, we do not control our destiny. We can shorten our lives, certainly, but we cannot guarantee their length by reliably preventing or reversing an otherwise terminal illness. Whether you are an atheist, believing that the universe is created by statistical randomness, or a Daoist or Buddhist, believing that there are natural laws that all of creation is subject to, or you believe in a Creator who is either running the show or at least set up the rules, it is clear that we mortal humans do not call the shots.

It is both a disappointment and a relief to have come to this realization.I recognize that no matter how hard I have tried, I do not get to live the long, vibrant life I dreamed of.I also realize that, at this point, I might as well have as much dessert as I want.

I can still look wistfully at all that might have been had I received a longer ticket on this ride and plummet into the unfairness of it all. But I realize how fruitless this is and that I do not want to spend the few months I may have left either complaining or wallowing in victimization.

I am not afraid of death. I do not know what happens when we die, and I doubt that anyone else does, either. There are no reputable reports of anyone being resurrected in at least 2000 years. And, do not mistake near-death experiences with death. A near miss in an airplane is not the same as a mid-air collision.

I suspect that what happens when we die is that the matter that our body was mingles with the earth, water, and air of our planet, and tiny bits of us become a part of many other things. I further speculate that the energy and consciousness that we are joins with the collective unconscious, as Carl Jung put it.

However, the discrete entity that was Daniel Newman, and the self-awareness and memories that went with it, no longer exists. If I am wrong and I awaken in a pool of bright light (may I have sunglasses, please?) and my Uncle Arthur and dog Red are having coffee with Jesus, who hands me a latte and a chocolate éclair, I’m fine with that, too—but I’m not counting on it!

The dying process, however, is quite another matter. As a physician, I’ve seen many people die, both quickly and slowly. A slow death from cancer, especially like the one I have in the chest, can be a miserable experience of pain and worsening difficulty breathing. When my symptoms get bad enough, I will go on hospice, take drugs, and avail myself of the planned death options available in my home state. (I hate the term “assisted suicide.”It is pejorative and suggests that if not for the decision to end one’s life, that a person would live on. If I could live on, I would. I’ve tried very hard to do so. But I am not interested in a “natural death” of extreme suffering, as I have seen others unnecessarily endure.)

As it is currently, I see myself marching towards my end more rapidly than I expected.I have gone from walking briskly to difficulty moving from the bedroom to the bathroom. . .and panting while putting on my shoes and socks. And I feel the cancer growing in my chest. It pries my ribs apart to gain elbow room, which can be very painful. I’m coughing severely and though my weight remains stable, I feel progressively weaker. . . I have also recently experienced something I had only heard about from patients, which I will call “malaise.” It is an awful feeling of being sick, without any other adequate descriptor. It is not pain, weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, or aching. For me, it is a miserable reminder that my body is gradually shutting down.

When feeling this way physically, it is hard to be philosophical. However, there are some things that are still in sharp focus for me. First I want to do all I can to take care of those I care about. This is often blandly referred to as “getting one’s affairs in order.” The core of this is trying to leave those that you care about in as good a shape financially as possible, to afford them with the best chances for as good a life as they can have.

Parallel with that lies my deepest sadness, which one of my patients brilliantly labeled as grieving for those I leave behind. I know how difficult it will be emotionally for those who survive me to deal with my absence. My wife has had plenty of time to contemplate losing me. However, nothing can make up for the absence of the one who loves you, spooned behind you and holding you close in his arms. Or, having your best friend to decompress with at the end of the day or to brainstorm with you on day-to-day matters.

My children are in their 20s, still young enough to where my presence in their lives could mean a difference in terms of providing them with counsel and emotional support. They will lose their father before the first grandchild is born.

I have some very close friends who are already grieving the loss of someone they’ve known for decades and who has been there both to laugh and commiserate with them. We are all old enough to know that finding such friends is a rare occurrence in life.

There are also the hundreds of patients I will no longer shepherd towards health. Theoretically, there are hundreds of patients who could have been helped by me, that I will never have the opportunity to treat.

I do not have a “bucket list.” Sure, I would have loved to have seen Angor Wat, the Louvres, and Iguazu Falls, to name a few places. I would love to have experienced hang gliding, parasailing and hot-air ballooning. Yet I recognize that no matter how long one lives, and how far and wide one has traveled, there is always more to see and do. I am also very clear that I did not get cheated in my life.

I understand that my legacy will be somewhere between insignificant and earth shattering. Yes, I now I have influenced many lives, some profoundly, and mostly for the better. And no, I did not invent or discover something that will alter the course of humanity. And I’m OK with that.I understand that after a short period of time, except for those who were closest to me, their lives will have gone on with little thought of me. And I’m OK with that.

Life’s a funny thing. I think if we get it at all, for most of us, it’s close to the end. Why is that?

“Life is short, and we have but little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel this way with us. Oh, be swift to love, and make haste to be kind!”