Things That Spread
In the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States, my friend Christi was taking her daily walk on a beach near her home in Long Beach, California. As she strolled along her familiar route, it occurred to her that she had not crossed paths in several days with an elderly woman she frequently passed on her walks. Christi voiced her concern to another woman she often encountered on the beach. Several days later, Christi found out that the elderly woman was, in fact, well, and had been checked on by several people as a result of Christi’s inquiry. The concern of one individual had morphed and multiplied into a series of visits that brought this woman cheer, along with the assurance that she was not alone.
Spreading is of the most fearsome characteristics associated with cancer and Covid-19. When cancer cells multiply uncontrollably, the multiplied cells form tumors that can spread throughout the body, destroying healthy tissue. And, as we all know, Covid-19 started with a single case halfway around the world and quickly spread to every continent except Antarctica. When such unwanted forces multiply so rampantly and destructively, it’s easy to feel powerless and alone.
My friend Christi’s beach anecdote was a reminder, though, that menacing, destructive illnesses are not the only forces that can spread quickly and powerfully. Goodness can spread, too, in many beautiful ways. If we are looking for God in the challenges of cancer and Covid-19, it can be comforting to note that the Bible identifies God as a source of abundance and the spread of good things. For example, all four gospels contain accounts of Jesus feeding crowds with what starts out as a very small supply of food. Three gospels contain His parable of the mustard seed, depicting the kingdom of God as blossoming from the tiniest, most humble beginnings into a deeply rooted, expansive, welcoming space. And, in John 10:10, Jesus identifies Himself as a source of overflowing goodness, saying, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Still, it can be easy to wonder where that God of abundance is when your strawlike hair is coming out in clumps from chemotherapy. Obviously hair loss is a minuscule problem compared to loss of life. Even so, it’s not fun, and it does make it easy to think of loss and depletion as having the upper hand. Yes, hair loss is a tradeoff for the benefit of anti-cancer medicine, but that benefit can be forgotten when you’re looking in the mirror or shivering from the drafts you never felt when you had hair.
However, I believe that God and love, not loss and depletion, had the upper hand. For starters, the day before I had arranged with my hair stylist to shave off my remaining hair, my husband, Karl, stunned me by appearing in our bedroom with a shaved head, as a gesture of solidarity. The next day, my daughter Ellen gave me a beautiful hug as I tearfully left for the hair salon. At the salon, the hair stylist, Karen, radiated compassion and warmth, and wouldn’t take any money for her time and work. Where was God? Spreading love through Karl, Ellen, and Karen, as well as through others who shared their compassion, wisdom, and generosity during my hair loss milestone.
I lost my hair in October, just as the weather was getting cold. Mercifully, even before a hair fell out, the Hat Brigade went to work. The members of the Brigade didn’t all know each other, but consisted of individuals who showered me with hats of all colors, designs, and textures, each one a heart- and head-warming reminder of the love of friends, strangers…and God. A number of the hats came from members of a group that meets at Luther Memorial Church called Stitches of Love. Founded in 1999 by Betty Hoke, it has proliferated the vision of one woman into a group that has provided more than 27,000 hats, scarves, sweaters, and other knitted items to children locally and around the world. The knitters multiply goodness to fill a need for warmth and to show that someone cares.
The Covid-19 pandemic, too, has spurred and multiplied goodness through countless kindnesses of friends, family, and strangers toward one another. Every day health care workers, supermarket employees, food pantry workers, trash collectors, and many others put their lives on the line to serve complete strangers. Many shoppers pick up extra groceries for people who are at high risk. Stories abound of people who have found creative ways to share love and light in the midst of this pandemic. A random Google Chrome search of “coronavirus, kindness” on April 7 yielded 130 million results!Cancer and Covid-19 are real and anguishing. That is part of the truth. I find it inspiring, and hope-inducing, though, to look at the equally real truth of the love that these diseases unveil. The Bible teaches that this love is the essence of God. Spreading love is the great commandment Jesus gave to His disciples twice at their last meal together: “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) and “My commandment is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) The contrast between God and disease is eloquently summed up by author Mary Pezzulo:
“The Holy Ghost is something like the opposite of a virus. A virus invades, but the Holy Ghost is already everywhere present and filling all things in the first place…A virus causes chaos, but the Holy Ghost brings harmony. A virus causes a pandemic, and the Holy Ghost causes a chain reaction of charity and love wherever we allow.”
As a symbol of hope, I leave you with a picture of a bird’s nest that my cousin Debbie found outside her window recently. In the midst of Covid-19, birds are still laying eggs, spreading life. You have to look carefully to see the eggs in the picture, but they are definitely there. “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
“We’re afraid some of the cancer may have made its way into your blood.” The words of my oncologist pierced the protective emotional armor I had built in preparation for my initial oncology appointment following my breast cancer diagnosis. My anxiety shot through the roof. I had had a couple of days to process the diagnosis, and thought I was coming to grips with the new reality that I had cancer. My mother had soldiered valiantly through breast cancer treatments, and I planned to follow in her footsteps. It brought comfort to know that the same wonderful surgeon and oncologist who had treated her were going to be treating me. I thought I had a roadmap of the future all laid out…and then that roadmap got shredded when I learned that my type of breast cancer was different than my mother’s, and was going to involve additional treatment and uncertainty.
Cancer slammed me over the head with an unwelcome reminder: life doesn’t come with guaranteed roadmaps, and there are some things I just can’t control. Uncertainty and lack of control are hallmarks of the COVID-19 crisis as well. Over and over we hear the words “unprecedented” and “unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.” This massive uncertainty and lack of control are a recipe for anxiety. Where is God in our anxiety? In speaking of God, the Bible says, “Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7). And Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
These commands imply that we do have a degree of control, in partnership with God: there’s no sense in giving a command that the respondent doesn’t have the ability to carry out. In my cancer journey, exercising control has included trying to follow the treatments that my doctors recommend; and seeking information from my doctors when I have questions, instead of venturing into wild, unproductive speculation. I find it indispensable each day to find something to be thankful for. And I throw up my hands and ask God to bring good out of whatever I am going through, reminding myself over and over that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
It may seem completely counterintuitive or artificial to thank God in the midst of worry, uncertainty and crisis. In my own experience, though, there has always been something to give thanks for. Before getting cancer, my mother developed a devastating case of viral encephalitis that left her for a time comatose, on a ventilator, with acute inflammation of the brain. Anxious doesn’t begin to describe the state of my own brain during that time. I didn’t know how even to begin to pray, let alone give thanks. Then God sent me three wonderful friends, Claudia, George, and Barbara, who invited me into their daily prayer circle. Each of them was in the midst of a terrible medical situation involving either themselves or their dearest loved ones. Still, they maintained thankful hearts and taught me a prayer of thanks that has stayed with me ever since, bringing me comfort and relief at the most stressful times: “Thank you for breath in my lungs, for blood running through my veins.” I can always take that prayer as a sincere starting point, and then I begin finding more and more things to be thankful for. And this creates a tremendous sense of relief from anxiety.
From there, if we carry out the call to center on God and to find things to be thankful for, it can inspire us to move forward toward one of the most satisfying antidotes to anxiety: using our energies to help others. Admittedly, I’ve been on the receiving end more than the giving end, but I can attest to the stress relief that brings, too. It would be impossible to list all the help I’ve received since my cancer diagnosis. Still, I believe God has heard and seen every prayer, smile, hug, visit, meal, treat, card, bottle of lotion, packet of ginger tea, and sacrifice by my family, church family, coworkers, friends, neighbors, and, of course, my medical team, and used it as medicine for my soul as well as my body. I fervently hope these kindnesses have been blessings to the givers as well.
Some of those face-to-face gestures are, sadly, not options in this time of COVID-19. Fortunately, we still have many, many opportunities to help. As the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service points out, “If this crisis has made anything clear, it is that we are all connected and dependent upon each other to ensure the health and well-being of our neighbors and ourselves.” German chancellor Angela Merkel stated in a message to her nation, “We all have to find ways to show affection and friendship… We can now, resolutely, all react together…We must show, even if we have never experienced anything like this before, that we act cordially and reasonably and thus save lives. Without exception, it depends on each individual and therefore on all of us.”
In the words of Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of the B’nai David-Judea congregation in Los Angeles, on March 12 in The Forward, “[L]ikely the most impactful thing we will do as we navigate this anxious chapter is to be constantly mindful of protecting others…Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another must become a thought as to how we might help that other, should the need arise.”
As for those things we can’t control: letting go of them by casting anxiety on God means taking my focus off of myself and taking the chance that there is a loving creator who embraces me in all my vulnerability. As Christian author Randy Alcorn points out, there are alternative, unwanted trajectories our worries can take when we don’t cast them on God: “We can cast them on ourselves, creating guilt, fear, depression, fatigue, ulcers, and illnesses. We can cast our worries on others in a negative way, in anger and resentment.” (https://www.epm.org/blog/2014/Jan/20/three-things-worry).
Dealing with the uncontrollable also means taking problems one day at a time, a concept Jesus expresses in Matthew 6:34 (“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”). Dutch resistance worker and evangelist Corrie Ten Boom faced great uncertainty as she, along with her family, sheltered Jews in a secret hiding place in their house in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II, and were sent to prison and a concentration camp for their efforts, constantly facing death. She and her family drew on God as their source of peace in a situation that was a petri dish for anxiety and worry. In Clippings from My Notebook, Ten Boom states, “Worrying is carrying tomorrow's load with today's strength - carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn't empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
As we cast our cares on God, pray, give thanks, and live out our thankfulness by reaching out to others, we can take comfort in the promise in I Peter 5:8: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Mary Carol, a member of Luther Memorial Church, felt a call to use her gift of writing to offer hope and encouragement to others who may find themselves in times of special need. In addition to teaching Humanities at York College of Pennsylvania, she, along with her husband, is raising two children.