Friday, September 25, 2009

Changing Relationships

One of the most wonderful results of my being diagnosed w/cancer is the relationships that I have developed and/or intensified as a result. That result has often been indirect, almost incidental. Sometimes, it is nothing more than the couldn't-be-coincidental timing that reveals the cause/effect relationship.
I am much more ready to open up to people these days. Not that I was overly private before; sometimes being frank to a fault. Just that often times in the past, I didn't think that people cared enough about what I had to offer. Now, I don't make that decision a priori – I put my stuff out there and let it roll from there.
Many of my friendships are more intense. I tell many more people how much I love them every time we part or hang up or whenever. My exchanges with long-time friends from college, for instance, are at a depth that we've never shared before.
Just as my highs are higher, my lows are lower. My heart is bigger, more sensitive. I cry much more easily now. I actually carry a handkerchief with me to church. The love and pain that folks share during the prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of need just before the end of the service usually set me off. Deeper depths and lower lows are good things.
The beauty is that I don't think this would change in the least if I was suddenly assured that my mortality was no more in danger than anyone else. It's not a function of my potential "short-timerness". The equation has irrevocably changed. It is clear why that should be the case for me with everyone I know or meet. My change is universal in that sense. So, although I feel that intimacy from others, I can't say whether this intensity is rippling out into other exchanges. (As I wish it would.) Their experience might be more local – i.e., just with me.

On the other side of the coin, possibly the single saddest outcome of my diagnosis – other than the more real possibility that I might not be around to grow up with my babies – is the relationships that have not changed very much. The disappointment for me comes from wanting something more from important relationships in my life, appreciating that import in a new way, yet having that potential unrealized. As I've said before, there is no good reason why we shouldn't listen, love, trust and share more.
I do not suddenly expect to interact with everyone I meet with the gravity of a final exchange. But I do believe that we make false choices ourselves, apply outdated models that we've carried with us since childhood, and misinterpret the intentions of others regularly. All in the service of a perspective we refuse to relinquish. It's our safe place. I've had little choice myself but to let go of many of my safe places.

None of it has been coincidental for me. Letting go has been my blessing from God. Please join me in the laughter and the tears.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Prisons in our Life

I have been troubled by the specter of prisons lately on three fronts in particular. I have been struggling with the effects on families of incarcerating undocumented immigrant parents. I have long been distressed by the prison industry that we have implicitly embraced in this country in the past 25-30 years. Finally, and most personally, I am regularly dismayed by the dark prisons that I see us building around ourselves that preclude the intimacy with loved ones that we are meant to share.

Harry and his family are regularly attending members of our Reformed Church of Highland Park. He is an immigrant from Indonesia who has been here since the mid-90s. Harry and his wife made a good faith effort and spent tens of thousands of dollars to gain citizenship since overstaying their tourist visa. (You would think that someone that wanted to right their situation would have an avenue to do so – but that is far from the case.) Unfortunately Harry was picked up at home by immigration agents in mid-January as he was heading off to work. He was locked up at the immigrant detention center located in Elizabeth, NJ for nearly three months. One day he is a loving husband and dad providing as best he can for his family. The next day he is a jailed criminal who can only see a loved one for one hour a day through a plexiglass window. During that time, I was among the members of our congregation that visited Harry every night. It was an incredibly emotional time for all of us. I personally felt an extra kinship with Harry – as a father, and more as a person whose time was seemingly suddenly limited.
This particular story ended well – with a true Easter miracle. Harry was ultimately released through the intervention of our amazing Pastor. Virtually none of the other dads are so fortunate. The congregation has continued to visit weekly with detainees at the facility in Elizabeth and started visiting detainees with a "criminal" record at the Middlesex County Jail. Imagine that you are a decades-long law-abiding, tax-paying member of society one day only to find yourself cut off from your family and in an orange jumpsuit the next. I can - as my own cancer diagnosis was similarly abrupt, inexplicable and life-changing. It'll certainly put your own challenges into perspective. As will hearing an 11-year-old girl tell about her father's detention and ultimate deportation and what that means to her and her family – as I did earlier this week.

My intent here is not to justify the actions of undocumented immigrants or to rail against prisons, though I believe that we ought to consider the wisdom and motives of our nation's policies. For some perspective I turn to Wikipedia – "The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate, and total documented prison population in the world. As of year-end 2007, a record 7.2 million people were behind bars, on probation or on parole. Of the total, 2.3 million were incarcerated. More than 1 in 100 American adults were incarcerated at the start of 2008. The People's Republic of China ranks second with 1.5 million, while having four times the population." How does that square with the Judeo-Christian nation that we claim to be? Are we to believe that Americans are the most immoral people on Earth, or the most deserving of punishment? Or might money be at the root of this evil too?
Our religion teaches us that we all make mistakes - that we are all broken and in need of forgiveness. Some of you may be ready to whip out the "eye for an eye" reference, but that is certainly not the basis of the totality of Jesus' teachings. It would be tough to argue that this is the kind of society that Jesus encourages us to pursue. We talk about family values but put our resources towards retribution to the near exclusion of all else. Where are the family values in breaking up families for paperwork violations? If we applied the "what would Jesus do…?" litmus test, it wouldn't be this. I have another suggestion. Since we apparently have such a poor appreciation of what Jesus would do in a given situation, I'd like to suggest criteria that we can all relate to more readily. What if, instead, we consistently considered "what is the best course of action for our children?" Would we leave families fatherless, would we have sick kids without health insurance, would we offer them unhealthy foods in schools and on every corner, would we drop bombs on their homes in far-off lands?

Maybe it is easy for us to build the brick and mortar prisons to put others in because we are so adept at raising the emotional and psychological walls that protect us from well-meaning others. I know of at least four couples that have recently chosen, in effect, to end long relationships/marriages rather than challenge themselves as individuals and address their personal issues. As if it will magically be better the next time around with someone else. I see in my own family circle how grudges, resentments and ancient anger has kept sisters apart for years; how the need for self-preserving insulation places an obscure emotional moat between brothers; and how the inability of a mother to admit the truth about the past keeps her from her adult daughters. We all know of too many similar instances. There are countless reasons why we aren't closer to the ones we love and who love us. None of them are good enough. Yet, we do it to ourselves - by choice.

The greatest shame is that God gives us the choice every day to make it right. We are all broken with the opportunity to mend by his grace. In each instance, there is a better road – one paved with compassion. Let's step up and out of our dark prisons and into God's light. If not for ourselves, then for all the Harrys and our children.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Make Love

Over the past 8-9 months, I have come to believe even more strongly that our primary purpose here on this Earth is to make love. I mean the words literally – not figuratively as they are typically used together.
Towards that person who, by virtue of our misunderstanding them, we come to dislike – make love.
For that family member who committed that seemingly unforgivable offense – make love.
Between us and the different-than-us other in our lives – make love.
Towards that neighbor or stranger whose lifestyle or views you find so disagreeable – make love.

The name of the game is the same since those lusty teenage years, only the players and desired outcomes have changed. In effect, we deliberately misunderstood what making love means. The colloquial meaning is much easier than the challenge that God lays out for us. Yes…I believe that God intends for us to make love in this world. What if we could each take every opportunity every day to make more love? The potential is available to all of us. I don't pretend to be there. Unfortunately, even life-threatening illnesses don't bring with them that kind of open heart instantly.

A Church friend asked me how my perspectives have changed as a result of my cancer. Without a doubt, the renewed primacy of relationships in my life is one great tangible benefit. I have always valued my friendships and regularly see friends I've had from third grade on. Those friends from my neighborhood, high school and college have remained an important part of my life - only more so. I am inclined to bridge the distance that exists in all of my contacts. Strangers…I now want to meet. Acquaintances are potential friends. I am no longer content to experience my longtime friends on a static level but am compelled to deepen that bond. I only wish that everyone felt the same.

When it comes to making love, all that limits us is our own issues and hang-ups. Some of us withhold it. Others wait for it to be earned. Still others, sadly, don't know how to do it. Realizing this, some turn to a therapist for help. For others, it is religion and God's call that allows them to open up their hearts. Ultimately, that is the goal of each. Most unfortunately – sometimes it is our steadfast clinging to various distractions and excuses that allows us to resist the help so readily available.
Often fear keeps us from connecting with those around us. We keep our vulnerabilities to ourselves rather than appear weak or different from those seemingly strong and together folks around us. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), I have found the opposite to be true - that sharing my cancer challenges has helped me to bond with others (i.e., so many of you). Why would that be?

God allows us to admit that we are fragile and broken. Consider that his "rules" – from the Golden Rule on – are primarily intended to regulate how we relate to each other. Incidentally, that is one of the chief benefits of religion in our lives. It is not predominantly about the adherence to a particular dogma or even the faith in a set of unknowns. Religion is, rather, the opportunity for community and positive change consistent with shared beliefs. If it ain't about the people, then it isn't very good religion in my book.

So get out there, leave your fears and shackles behind – connect deeply with all those you meet and make love in this world. Lord knows we need it.