He who sings, prays twice: Cancer and faith

The last hour before you start a theater show looks crazy.  Everyone is getting into costume and doing their makeup in front of too few mirrors. People are making sure their props are in the right place.  Actors with mikes sing for the mike check.   The run crew makes sure the lighting, curtains, etc. are correct.  The orchestra and the singers warm up. Everyone is excited and rushing around.  The house opens and the audience starts to arrive.  Everything gets quieter backstage, but the excitement still simmers.  

Finally, the lights go down.  The orchestra starts the overture.  Everything quiets down backstage.  The actors get into place onstage and in the wings.  You focus on what you're about to do.  It's like you're suspended and waiting to move.

In that beautiful moment of suspension, focus, and anticipation, I often (okay, almost always) have some of my most focused prayers - that the show will go well for everyone, that the audience will enjoy it, that cast members who are sick or sad will be able to enjoy the show...

...and thanksgiving.  Those are some of my most thankful prayers - particularly during this summer's show since I wasn't even sure I'd be able to sing again last fall after my surgery.

I don't know that I've written about this before because... well, your best prayers are supposed to be at church, right?

After not being able to go to church for months after my partial thyroidectomy last year (post here), I embrace any way that I can worship.  I've always thought that one can encounter God all over, not just in church.  But after months of being too dizzy and exhausted to make it through a formal service, I now enthusiastically advocate meeting God anywhere and everywhere.

Otherwise, only the healthy can encounter God in a significant way!  If you can only meet God in a long church service after a drive which exhausts you, that leaves those with health problems out in the cold.  If you look at the stories about Jesus, leaving the sick out is not following Jesus! 

I've always liked physical expressions of faith - making the sign of the cross, kneeling for prayer (before I had knee surgery), genuflecting, etc.

During my long recovery from surgery, I started feeling like genuflecting at places other than in the Nave at church. 

At Ayr Mount in the spring...


...at family dinners, at choir rehearsals (I could go to rehearsals long before I could last through a formal service), while doing short hikes in the mountains, out in the gardens, etc. - anyplace I felt thankful and closer to God.

 At various churches, we've heard all sorts of things about how and why to pray to God:  To remind God of His promises (evangelical); adoration, petition, thanksgiving, confession, and intercession (Catholic), because the Bible tells you to, etc.

Since my surgery, pat answers about prayer seem even further away.  Petition?  Walk around the Duke Cancer Center and see the small,tired children with bald heads and large stuffed animals being wheeled around in strollers or wagons by their parents.  Why was my cancer solved by surgery, and their treatment goes on and on?  I don't know.  There are few prayers that are more fervent than the prayers of those parents.  

I still pray.  Mostly for other people, a bit for me, lots of thanksgiving.  I pray because... God.  

There's really nothing else to add.

Praying in a church at a service is nice - it's pretty and inspirational.  I no longer believe that it's essential - because anything that leaves out the sick can't be the only way to God.

I still believe the Eucharist is important, but - and here's the difficult part for me - I no longer believe that it's essential because anything that leaves out the sick can't be the most important way to God.

My faith at this point is expressed in two ways.  

First, by taking care of people.  After not being able to do much of that for months, it's so wonderful to be able to do.  Those of you who were in this year's musical saw that on overdrive this summer.  I recorded music to help people learn it, had the altos over to my house to work on music, hosted set painting work evenings in our garage, sewed, and I'm now going through the over 1,000 photos that my husband took at a dress rehearsal to edit the best ones for the cast.

Taking care of people - and almost all of that could be done at home because my energy isn't back to lots of running around yet.

Second, by singing to God.  That's where the title quote from St. Augustine comes in.  After the post-surgery possibility of totally losing my voice, singing is even more important that it was before.  Whenever I sing, and whatever I sing, I'm always singing to God.  It doesn't matter if it's an Alleluia, a choir anthem, a musical theater audition, blending my voice with others in the chorus of a show, or singing along with a song by P!nk.  I'm always singing to God.


[Note:  I wrote this a year ago, after I was in a local production of Li'l Abner.  After not being able to sing for four months the previous fall/winter because of my partial thyroidectomy, I actually got my first solo singing role in a theater production!  Being with my theater family that summer and being able to help out so much, was very healing for me after a long year of a slow recovery (and choir helped immensely over the spring, even though I wasn't well enough at that point to make it through a long Sunday morning).  A year later, after two more wonderful musical theater experiences (Ragtime and Annie), I've come back to this post, and it's still pretty much what I believe.  I'll be looking for a church closer to home (hopefully) in the next year or two.*  What I'm looking for in a church hasn't really changed from what I've always wanted, but I'm finally being really open about what I feel is what I should do with this time I have been given.  More on that in future posts, but, it's really all here in this one.  Singing and helping people.]

 * Younger son has one more year of homeschooling left so I'm not splitting my focus at this point.  Also, we've always rushed into joining churches, and I'd like to do things differently this time.  

Doing without the Eucharist: Cancer, faith, and family

Through my time in the Catholic and then in the Episcopal Churches, the Eucharist has been central to my worship.  No matter how bad the homily/sermon, regardless of the music for Cantor versus choir, no matter how little I could pay attention due to active small children, receiving the Eucharist meant a great deal to me.  Most of the time, we haven't lived close to a church with a daily Mass, but, even so, I tried to go to the occasional Daily Mass - whether at St. Leo's in Winston-Salem where we worshiped with the nuns before work or at St. Thomas More in Chapel Hill, which was just close enough to daughter's ballet class that I could get to the 5:15 Mass and back in time to pick her up (until the following year when her class was later).  

After last year's cancer diagnosis, surgery, and very slow recovery, I'm not sure where my faith is now.  I pray, but it's more along the lines of "Please?" than for any thought that my praying will change anything.  Maybe I pray because, in some small way, it connects me to God.  Or maybe I pray because it seems rude not to.  Or maybe it's habit.

It's now been half a year since I received the Eucharist.  That's where the cancer surgery recovery comes in.  

I miss the Eucharist.  

I won't go into the details of my current physical condition.  It would be so easy to descend into a whine, which is part of why I haven't blogged these last few months.  But here are the parts that relate to church:

  • Anesthesia:  My doctor said it could be months before I got back to normal due to my sensitivity to drugs.  Besides making me tired for months, the anesthesia made me unable to multitask.  Do you know how many things that affects? - Putting together a mental picture of the scene you're looking at, having a conversation and reacting to non-verbal cues - even having a conversation and just looking at the other person.  I've spent lots of dinners conversing but staring at the tablecloth.  Just walking across our yard was visually overwhelming.  It was months before I could drive again.  It's much better than at the end of the summer, but I still get overwhelmed very easily.  All the different people and activity at church?  I can't handle it yet.  I've missed so many theater performances that my friends have been in the last few months because I can't handle that kind of overwhelm.  I'm still also very easily tired and worn out.  Just the drive (with older son driving) to church and back would wear me out, much less a service where there is so much to do right.
  • Post-Operative Traumatic Stress Disorder:  Yes, that's a thing, and it was my diagnosis back in October.  Not only are things overwhelming, they're threatening.  Younger son and I were having pizza before one of daughter's dance performances a month ago.  The restaurant was very crowded, loud, and brightly colored (not harmoniously).  You know in horror movies when all of a sudden a benign crowd turns menacing - usually the camera work goes slantways and the people elongate.  That's what it felt like.  I had to quietly talk myself out of the restaurant.  After walking around in the peace of Durham streets, I was better.  Again, I would find church overwhelming - particularly since they combined the two later services last fall so there would be lots of people I don't know, and it would be much more crowded.  [POTSD, for me, also involves a lot of anger - to a level that I've never experienced before.  Really, put it all together, and I feel like a stranger in my body.]
  • Thyroid hormones. I had a partial thyroidectomy so that, hopefully, the remaining thyroid would give me what I need.  My hormone levels have been going down since surgery.  I find out in two weeks whether or not I need to go on artificial ones.  That's also contributing to my exhaustion.
  • Costochondritis (inflammation of the chest muscles and tendons):  When this is bad, my chest won't expand for me to breathe normally.  Trying to squeeze into a crowded church would make me tense up all of those muscles.

So, I don't have the energy to go to a service.  I've considered trying to go to the Daily Service at the Episcopal Church in town, but I'm not sure I'm up for being a stranger at a formal church,* and I can't usually do more than one out-of-the-house activity a day or I'm exhausted, nauseous, and dizzy.  Their Daily Services are on Wednesday, which is our busiest day.  

So praying seems kind of unreal - actually, very little in the whole panoply of faith and church involvement (over the last 32 years) has had anything to do with my cancer treatment, I haven't received Communion for half a year, and I'm wondering what faith has to do with anything.  Much of my church involvement seems like it's been whiffling activity - except for the parts I've enjoyed like choir and our Catholic small group.  Church involves lots of running around - it's almost defined as that.  I've always tried to do that, but I absolutely can't now.  

I ran across a Buddhist-themed quote yesterday which prompted this post.  I can't find it now, but it was along the lines of the importance of really looking at what is around you and giving thanks.  

That, I can do.

What's interesting is that there isn't any reason that a follower of Jesus can't follow that idea.  In fact, it's quite appropriate.

So where do I find my faith now?

In the face of my husband, who's been so patient and encouraging with my slow recovery, who jumps at any opportunity to make our living situation better for me, and who does acupressure on my chest muscles before bed every night so that I can breathe well enough to sleep.

In the face of my older son, who, even if he feels awkward when I cry, just sits there with me, caring written all over his face, and who also drives me all over the place.

In the face of my daughter, who cries with me, who has been so busy taking care of me, and who comes up with new ways to help every time I turn around.

In the face of my younger son, who is fiercely protective, has unlimited, highly expressive, teen-age sarcasm for anything (or anyone) that hurts me, and who has spent so much time looking out for me this last year.  


  * I did go to a wonderful, less formal, Christmas Eve Lovefeast at the United Church of Christ (6 minutes from our house)(where I've played flute before).  Not unexpectedly, because this happens a few times a day, I had a brief period of exhaustion about halfway through.  It was uncrowded enough that, if I had decided to, I could have just lain down on a pew to listen to the rest of the sermon.  People there were really welcoming - which was wonderful because that was only about two weeks after my restaurant experience. 


It's okay to cry at the theater

There would be tissues left on the floor of the theater after performances of Les Misérables.  Members of the production crew would have to clean them up afterwards, but that was actually a happy thing because it meant that the performances were really reaching the audience - causing them to cry.  Some of us were teary backstage - watching Eponine die or "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" from the wings - even though we'd seen those scenes over and over at rehearsals and performances.  

I've been going to Good Friday and Palm/Passion Sunday Masses/Services for about thirty years.  We listen to the events of the torture and death of Jesus - and we're stone-faced.  It's part of the central story of our faith, but we don't express emotion about it.  I'm not saying that people don't feel emotion (I'm assuming they feel a lot), but it's not part of our tradition to express that.  

Our choir often sings "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" for either Palm Sunday or Good Friday.  I have to work very hard to sing it at services without having tears running down my face.*

Many of the wonderful cast members of Les Misérables were also excellent in this winter's production of Jesus Christ Superstar.  While watching, I was finally able to cry freely while watching the events of the Passion vividly acted onstage - and I wasn't the only one with tissues out.**

I've had various health problems for the last few months, and I had a few weeks where I felt too weak to leave the house at all (I was in the Predni Zone - like the Twilight Zone, but not as interesting).  I had planned on singing in choir for the winter and spring.  Instead, I only sang one Sunday between New Year's and Easter.  I'm still slowly regaining my energy (my adrenal glands apparently decided to reappear last Monday, which means that I no longer have to eat every ninety minutes to keep my blood sugar from plummeting), but I'm not back to normal yet.  Even though it exhausted me (and I had to keep swigging blood-sugar-enhancing orange juice throughout), I went to choir rehearsals the last two weeks because the music they were singing was so wonderful.  

I finally sang again for the Easter service today!  Again, I had to take two naps this afternoon because I was so exhausted, but I had a wonderful time.  I was so happy to be singing at a service again that I had tears of happiness running down my cheeks for the first half of the Eucharistic prayer.

After being stuck at home for a large part of the last three months, my priorities seem to have changed. I accepted the tears as a heartfelt response to the blessing of being in choir and let them go their way.  


* Okay, I don't always succeed.

**  I threw mine out.

A quote I like

"As a person of faith, you do not have to keep Christ in Christmas, he is already there.  He is there with the lonely, the depressed, the joyful and the confused.  He is there with the widow and the orphan, with you, with me and with the atheist.  As people of faith it is in these places, fueled by grace love and hospitality, we can, not bring Christ back to Christmas, but join with him in the work he is already doing, and sometimes work he is already doing in spite of the best intentions of his people."

From Organic Student Ministry


Lent this year

A few weeks before Lent started, I read a comment on a religious discussion board that said that people with allergies and asthma should just endure their reactions to incense (no matter how severe) in order to fulfill their religious duties.  Basically, incense was too important to change its use for a bunch of whiners.*  

Since I have asthma (back under control now, but it was really bad in November & December) and it was the height of seasonal depression, my first reaction was that maybe God just doesn't like asthmatics (& other people who have reactions to incense).

My second reaction was that I needed to stop reading things that made me feel like I couldn't be a Christian.  That's what I should give up for Lent!  

I've never seen the point of New Year's Resolutions - if you want to make a change, make it!  Why wait until New Year's?!  The same with this.  A few weeks before Lent, I gave up reading things that looked like they would make me feel like I couldn't be a Christian.  Basically, this means that before I start reading articles or discussion boards, I pause and really think about the possible results of reading them.  

This was so useful that I'm also doing the same thing with articles & boards that have nothing to do with religion.  Is this article really going to give me any useful new information or is it just rehashing the same arguments?  Does it give a new perspective?  I read far fewer articles now.

The wonderful thing is that I'm reading more books.  

I also decided to try reading more things that actually encourage my faith!  While this seems like a fairly obvious thing to do, I've spent lots of time reading things that other people recommend because they encourage their faith.  I've never tried to focus on thing that will help my faith because that seems like cherry-picking - maybe I'll only focus on the easy stuff.  However, with my bout of not-being-sure-of-what-I-believed a few years ago,** I decided that it would be good to nurture my faith for a while.  I've been listening to Father Phillip's homilies online, and I've been reading Inspiration from Pope Francis.

The thing is, unlike the usual Lenten changes, I don't see a reason to change back when Lent is over.   

*  I tried to go back and find the link, but my internet history doesn't go back that far.  

** During the Nicene Creed, I would mentally add "I would like to believe" at the beginning of every section. 

[The photo is of the mother and baby dolphins that we watched in the harbor in Charleston, SC a month ago.  The photo is only loosely connected to the post (I bought the book about Pope Francis from the Pauline bookstore in Charleston).]


2011_09_24_7220sIn the last year, I've found that doing yoga and getting massages have helped me to slow down and be more thoughtful (and reduce blood pressure).  I'm really in a different, more observant, calmer frame of mind after both.  I like the way I think then.

Yoga, of course, is Eastern, but my massage therapist also has Eastern symbolism, etc. in her massage room.   I'm so used to the busy-ness of churches that I've been wondering if there is any strand of Western Christianity that encourages this kind of slowing down and awareness, but I hadn't gotten beyond wondering.  

When I first found out that our church is having a workshop on Centering Prayer, I was really excited.  Unfortunately, it's the same day as as the Durham Pride Parade that we've gone to the last three years.*  I should try to find books on Centering Prayer.  

Dear husband was talking to the guy setting up the sound system at The Depot in Hillsborough yesterday evening.  This gentleman plays a number of instruments including the mandolin, drums, guitar, and the tuba.  He mentioned that he'd be playing in the Pride Parade in a few weeks.  He's the sousaphonist for The Bulltown Strutters, a wonderful, New Orleans-style community parade band.  We've seen them in the Pride Parade and in the Hillsborough Handmade Parade.  Dear husband said he'd cheer him on in a few weeks.  

Here are the Bulltown Strutters in last year's Handmade Parade:


* It's also a really busy weekend because the Gallery Players in Burlington are performing Fiddler on the Roof (and we have a friend in the cast), and the Carrboro Music Festival is that Sunday.**  Being an introvert and knowing that this would make me exhausted, I've told the guys that I'll talk to them as much as they want at these events, but I will probably be really un-conversational the rest of the weekend.

** We also usually go to the Duke Gardens fall plant sale on Saturday morning, but we'll have to skip that this year.  

[The polar bear was on the Durham Scrap Exchange truck in the Pride Parade two years ago.]

How physically fit should a Christian be?

I mean this question to be within Christian theology.  Obviously, in practical terms, Christians can work out as much and be as fit as anyone else.  

But, theologically speaking, should they?  Is that how they should spend their time?

I got really out of shape this spring and early summer when I was getting used to the CPAP because I was so exhausted all the time.  I couldn't drive to Zumba classes in the evenings, and walks were even difficult (Can I go to sleep now?  At the next driveway?).  Now that the musical is over (and it was So much fun!!!!) one of my goals for the next half year is to get back in shape.  Walking, Zumba, swimming, physical therapy exercises, weights, etc.  

This morning I walked for an hour, and this evening, I swam laps.  Tomorrow, I'll walk first thing in the morning and do Broadway Dance in the evening.  I'm going to try to keep up the "walks and..." as much as I can. 

It struck me this evening, though, that I'm planning on spending a lot of time exercising this next half year.  If I were a good Christian, is this what I should be doing?

I'm a really lousy Christian, though (I've covered that in other posts so I won't go into it here) so this is really a theoretical question.  I'm so lousy that I wouldn't become a good Christian by exercising less so I'm not worrying about it.  

The exercise question isn't necessarily new, either.  I spent about two hours a day doing my physical therapy after my second knee surgery (the pt was much more intense after the second surgery because I was doing it through Duke Sports Medicine)(one of my happy places).  After the first knee surgery (with a lousy doctor at a different practice), they gave me pt to get me back to normal activities - chores, walking, etc.  The pt at Duke Sports Medicine was so intense because it was designed to get me teaching hi/low aerobics again.  I got to that point, but then I found that hi/low had been replaced by Zumba in most health clubs.*

Anyway, I theoretically wondered the same thing then.  Was it good use of a Christian's time to spend  2 hours/day on pt to really get in shape rather than to do about 1/2 hour to get back to just basic activities?

I'm not saying that Christians shouldn't exercise, but I'll be exercising more than the recommended 60 minutes 5X a week, or whatever it is that magazines are preaching right now.  It's the extra part that I'm (theoretically) questioning.  

Of course, I could ask the same question about dance, musical theater, hiking, kayaking, reading, gardening, and any of the other things I do for fun - even writing silly blog posts.  


* The question now is:  Do I want to join the small ranks of Zumba instructors over 50?!

A Dream Within A Dream - Edgar Allen Poe

Yes.  For you Princess Bride fans,* that is the actual name of Poe's poem.  

We were discussing the Seven Deadly Sins this evening, and we ended up at the Wikipedia article when Dear Husband couldn't remember all of the Latin names.  We wandered a bit further through the Wikipedia while looking up similar concepts in other faiths:  Arishadvarga in Hindu theology, and Kleshas in Buddhism.  Eventually, after donating to the Wikipedia because we use it so often, we ended up at the main Wikipedia page which featured an article on being hanged, drawn, and quartered (I wouldn't recommend reading it).  Dear husband asked who painted the illustration with the article (I don't recommend looking at it either).  

The illustration was from a manuscript of Froissart, a medieval, French, chronicle writer.  We couldn't easily find the artist who painted the illustration, but the Froissart article mentioned that one of his manuscripts was illustrated by Brugeois artists of the day - from the Flemish city of Bruges.  I will show the Wikimedia photo for Bruges (below), which makes me really want to go back to Europe some day.



Getting back to the Seven Deadly Sins, while I was looking for the Latin names, we ended up at the post about sloth, at The Starry Cave.  The post goes into depth on sloth (socordia): 

...Sloth has turned into absolute selfishness where one become a burden to ones surroundings where one’s own misery and hopelessness becomes the ominous worth of one’s sorry excuse for a life. A life where one feeds upon others goodwill and favors, where one expect the world to listen to one’s putrid lament while one is not giving anything to anyone – not even to oneself. Sloth can work as a darkened scale where one pleases others because one has renounced ones centre or that one like a beast of pestilence demands the world to attend to the suffering void of one´s painful existence. In both cases one has sacrificed ones soul to the realm of Hypnos and has taken greedily the chalice of Lethe’s waters of forgetfulness to mend ones pain and self-inflicted soul-sores. This is true sloth; a denial of love both its coming and going...  
I recommend reading the whole post.  
The post concludes with Edgar Allen Poe's poem, A Dream Within A Dream:
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
* Here it is. I know you want to see it again:


Asheville - "Cesspool of sin"

A few years ago, one of the state Senators referred to Asheville as a "Cesspool of sin."  Of course, when I was wandering around Asheville last week, I saw a t-shirt that said, "Asheville - Cesspool of sin - Dive in!"

Daughter goes to a rather unusual Catholic church in Asheville. I love visiting it with her.  The priest was once in an interfaith discussion in Asheville, and someone brought up the cesspool of sin comment.  Most of the clergy there didn't want to address it, but the priest chimed in with:  "Catholic churches are full of sinners so you could say that they're cesspools of sin."

He repeated it in a homily during Mass one Sunday.  I really enjoy his homilies. :)