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Time to Heal

Sermon - 5/14/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

Thank you choir, it's so good to hear you again [this was Dan's first sermon after being gone several weeks due to surgery].

I actually have 2 texts for us this morning.  The first comes from Ecclesiastes 3:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
7a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

9 What gain have the workers from their toil? 10I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 

And my second text comes from the gospel of Hallmark J.  This card that I received while I was recovering from surgery -- the picture is of a little dog talking to the gentleman in pajamas on his bed, and the dog says:

"Sit.  Lie Down.  Stay":

And then on the inside of course it says:  "Heal".  Indeed.

So what I have to offer this morning is not so much a sermon as it is a personal reflection on my own healing journey.  I do not know what value, if any, it will have for others, but I do know that many of you have been (and are) on that very same journey.  And so I share these modest and hardly original insights as a fellow traveler in hopes that we might find some collective wisdom to guide others that are on this path of healing.

I have had two ultrasounds in my life.  The first occurred on a Tuesday afternoon in 1994.  I had initially been diagnosed with a bowel obstruction the previous Saturday morning, but my physician (on this Tuesday afternoon) suspected that something else was causing my continuing abdominal cramps.  So he sent me to the surgeon with my new, freshly-made ultrasound revealing the diagnosis of appendicitis.  The surgeon did not exactly instill a lot of confidence in me when he took a look at the ultrasound, turned it this way and that, and said:  "I don't know how anyone can read these things"!

But my temperature was 102 and climbing, therefore he said that they had no choice.  It was 5 minutes after 5:00, after 3 hours of being poked and prodded in every way imaginable in that office, he told me I had 10 minutes to get to the hospital for my surgery that was scheduled for 5:30.  I didn't have a whole lot of time to think about that surgery.  It was not a pleasant experience, I can tell you.  He tried to remove my appendix laparoscopically, but my appendix had wrapped itself around my colon, and hence he had to open me up and do it in the traditional way, something that was going to cause my next surgeon a lot difficulty 12 years later.

I had one medication then that I absolutely despised, that I was convinced was making me sicker.  I spent 3 miserable days in the hospital and when I went home that misery just continued, and I'll never forget one night when I took that pill and immediately threw up.  I called my surgeon, it was late and night, and said 'what do I do?'.  He laughed at me.  He laughed at me!  And he said:  "Grow up!  There is no medicine on earth that could make anybody vomit that fast.  It's all in your head, get over it".  Great, of all the surgeons in the world, I had one with the bedside manner of Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

There was one bright moment in that long trial, and that was when my mother came and took charge of my recovery.  She managed my medications, my diet, and most importantly, made me get out of bed and start walking again.  Judy has never quite forgiven me for that -- because she tried to do the same thing.  But there are those times in your life when you just need a Mom.  I was so thankful that mother was there to get me through that.

Now I don't know which of us learned more from that, whether it was the fact that I had learned how to be a better patient, or my wife learned how to be more assertive.  But she took charge of my recovery these last 2 weeks and I'm very thankful for the loving care she gave me to get through it.

In contrast to 1994 when I had almost no time to think about that surgery, the surgery I had 2 weeks ago was nearly 4 months in the making.  The first indication I had that something was wrong was when my physician told me after a routine physical in December that I needed to go see a urologist.  A urologist?!   I thought, ‘Only OLD men have urologists, you know, why do I need a urologist?’  I went in January, and sure enough he told me that I needed to have a biopsy taken of my prostate.  That was the second ultrasound.  That, along with a needle that was a yard long. I'm not going to tell you how he got that needle into my prostate, believe me you don't want to know!  It wasn't fun, but we got through it.  That occurred 2 days after my 51st birthday in February.  I didn't think it was a very good birthday present, personally.

By the time I received my diagnosis of prostate cancer on March 3rd, I had already had 2 months to prepare myself for that possibility. [Editor's note, with encouragement from Dan:  click here for educational information about prostate cancer]  I learned 2 things on that day, one comforting and one unsettling.  The comfort:  I learned that prostate cancer is among the most curable of cancers that a man can have.  The unsettling:  my prostate cancer was on the very edge of the spectrum of those considered to be curable.

I received this card from my stepmother, who is also a cancer survivor, which she received from another cancer survivor:

I thought she loved me J.  It says on the inside of the card:  "Remember that right attitude is very important".

Fortunately, I learned that most prostate cancers are very slow growing.  In fact, so slow that often doctors choose not to treat it.  So I was given a month to make my decision.  After I researched all the possible kinds of treatment, I decided that I wanted to try laparoscopic again.  Only this time I wanted to make sure that it was done right, that it would work.  So after much research, prayer, contemplation and discussion with others who have been through the surgery, I chose to go with that high-tech robotic-assisted DaVinci surgery you have perhaps seen advertised by McKenzie Willamette Hospital. [Editor's note, with encouragement from Dan:  click here for information regarding the DaVinci system]  Nancy Hayner, one of our members, is part of the team at McKenzie Willamette which made the decision to bring it here.  I'm so thankful for that and especially the care that Nancy gave to me in that time I was there.

I received this card that kind of describes this new modern technology:

On the inside it says:  "He has a 50-inch high-definition widescreen plasma T.V. in his new home entertainment center".  With what I paid through my insurance company, I'm sure my doctor could have bought several.  I actually showed that card to him, and he thought it was great.

So it was that after months of preparation that I entered McKenzie Willamette on April 27th.  I went home the next day with 5 dime-sized incisions, that along with the excellent care I received from my wife, made all the difference in the world.  

Then Frank and Donna to send me this card:

Indeed, and if you want to know more about my Doohickey, you can ask me later and I'll be glad to tell you all about it J.  But not now.

When we returned to the surgeon the following week, we got the best news of all -- that the cancer was found to have been fully contained within my prostate, now removed, and therefore my surgeon said to me, "You should never have to deal with that cancer again".  You don't know how good it felt to hear that.  Technically I won't be considered cured until I've had two years of negative PSA tests.  I still have a few nagging side-effects caused by the change in my plumbing, but I can't tell you how good it feels to be here and to tell you that I am, if not yet officially, at least practically, cancer free.  And for that I give thanks to God. [Applause from the congregation].

Now that was a long story that I didn't make very short.  But let me share with you a few insights that I gained from this experience. 

I received 6 or 7 books from folks (I think people thought I was going to spend a lot of time in bed, it didn't turn out to be the case) and I haven't read all of them, but I'm still enjoying them.  I wanted to mention two in particular that I found especially helpful.  One from one of our new members -- "Illness as Metaphor", by Susan Sontag1. Sontag (who is herself a cancer survivor) challenges the way we use cancer as a metaphor for all that is evil in the world -- you know, “this 'cancer' that we have to eradicate in our society”.  As well as the military metaphors that we use to describe the way we fight cancer.  She says the result is not only do we demonize the illness, but then the patient often feels guilt or shame.  “I must have done something to bring this evil upon me,” and “how can I have this evil growing within me?”  That in turn inhibits effective treatment, resulting in preventable deaths.  “Cancer,” she writes, “is just a disease.  Not a curse, not a punishment, not an embarrassment.”  And it's only when we learn to treat it just as that and not make it into more than what it is, you see, that we can effectively treat it.

This is especially true of cancers involving those more 'sensitive' parts of our body.  So women are often embarrassed to talk about breast cancer, and men about prostate cancer.  Well folks, I will not be shamed.  I am not embarrassed to say that I am a man, and no less of one, who just happens to be without a prostate.  Heck, as far as I'm concerned, with the help of God and the good medical care I received, I have beaten this disease and I am proud of it.

Now, they say, men, if you live long enough, you too will get prostate cancer, even if it doesn't become a problem for you.  So the difference between me and most other men here is that I never have to deal with it again.  Na na na na na!

The second book I received from Jan Stafl, one of the physicians in our midst.  It is a book specifically on prostate cancer health, diet and complementary treatment, "Smart Medicine for a Healthy Prostate" by Mark McClure, a urologist who believes in the role of mind and spirit in healing.  It cites the work of Michael Lerner, who published a book in 1996 entitled "Choices in Healing" (about cancer), in which he makes the astounding claim that one of the traits of many cancer survivors is that they learned to see their illness as a gift, as a blessing.  So as odd as it might sound, I want to tell you not about my fight or war with cancer, but how I have been blessed by it.

One of the first things I read about prostate cancer is that contrary to the fear most men have about what prostate cancer will do to their sex lives, many men actually report increased intimacy with their partners.  And I'm here to tell you that is true.  Never in our 26 years of marriage have I felt closer to my wife than I do now.  You know what the hardest part of that surgery was?  Saying goodbye to Judy before they took me away.  I wanted her to go with me, I wanted her to be there, to hold my hand.  I wanted her to be the one on the operating table instead of me J.

But I'm here to tell you on this Mother's Day, that the love of my life is the mother of our children, with whom I share intimacies of flesh and spirit I never before fathomed possible.  It is truly a beautiful gift of God, brought by this cancer.

The second blessing this cancer has given to me is the outpouring of love and support I have felt from all of you.  The stack of cards I have received, the food, the prayer vigil, the E-mails, the drumming circle -- Mary Burrows sitting there drumming! -- that was held during my surgery.  The first trip I took out of the house was to the mailbox.  I couldn't wait to see if I had any more cards.  And sure enough, here was a card from 8 year-old Josie.  A little puppy dog on the front, and it says:

"How long until you get to come out and play?".

That has meant so much to me.  Twelve years ago when I was diagnosed with that appendicitis, I literally broke into tears in the doctor's office.  I'd been sick for 3 days, I was running a temperature, hadn't eaten, so I was a little weak to begin with.  The doctor mistook it and he tried to comfort me.  He said:  "Don't worry, it's not a problem, we deal with this all the time".  And I said:  "No, no, no, that's not the problem.  I'm the healthy one.  I'm the one that goes to the hospital to visit other people.  I've never been on the other end.  I don't know how to do this".  Well, I learned.

I didn't have that reaction this time.  There were still some tears along the way, but this time I actually looked forward to the recovery.  To be on the receiving end, to draw from that, to receive strength from all of that.  And so I am here to stand before you to say "thank you".

Several people have said to me, why on earth are you preaching, it's only been just over 2 weeks since your surgery -- you should take more time off.  I said, no, I need to be here, I need to express this to you, especially on this Mother's Day.

Third blessing, I learned to be more pro-active about my health.  To seek answers to questions.  To not shy from asking for the best treatment possible.  I learned that from several of you who said you gotta do this.  To not take "no" for an answer from the insurance company the first and the second time I was rejected for the treatment I had chosen.  To get in the best possible physical shape I could.  I set as a goal for myself to run to the top of the hill behind our house, Gillespie Butte.  I'm not a runner.  Regular exercise is not one of my strong suits.  But I was bound and determined to get in the best possible shape, to give myself the best odds possible.  So about every other morning I would get up early and I would run a little bit farther up that hill.  Finally, 3 days before my surgery, I made it all the way to the top, and like Rocky Balboa, I'm dancing up there, celebrating!

The fourth lesson -- learning radical trust.  Those of you who have been through major surgeries probably know this feeling.  Unlike my first surgery where I had no time to think about it, no choice, this time I had several options.  Options of kind of treatment, options of where to get surgery.  I actually had two different surgeries scheduled -- one with a more experienced surgeon in Seattle.  I spent a long time struggling with that choice of where to go.  I finally made the choice, a conscious choice, a decision of the will not based on any empiric evidence, but more on a gut feeling and on faith that I could receive the best possible care here.  Thus I went into that surgery giving my complete and total trust to that surgeon and to that medical team.  For 8 hours (I didn't know it was going to be 8 hours) I turned my body over to them.  It's not often that we place so much trust in another person, but that is precisely the kind of trust that Christ asks of us.  Not just for 8 hours, but for our whole lives.  To learn how to do that, to place that kind of trust in God, is a blessing.

And the fifth and last blessing, at least for now -- taking the time to heal.  The first week after surgery was not a lot of fun.  But once I got off the pain medications, got rid of that catheter, it was a much more enjoyable experience.  It's not that I'm done healing, either, but that I feel that I'm well on my way.  And so I'm very thankful for that gift of time to be able to do that.  How important it is for all of us to take that time.  To give our bodies as well as our spirits time to heal.  Be it a physical, emotional, or spiritual injury.

Michael Lerner says that even when a cure is not possible, healing always is.  You see a cure involves our physical body.  Healing involves that inner process of the mind and the spirit.  And so he says healing is always possible.  There are people who are cured but are never healed.  And there are people who are healed even though they are not cured.  That is the good news given to all of us -- that healing is possible for every one of us regardless of our physical health.

No matter what your ailment, you too can be healed.  May we all be so blessed.

1  Susan Sontag died on December 28, 2004, aged 71, from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) evolving into acute myelogenous leukemia. The MDS was likely a result of the massive doses of chemotherapy and radiation she received three decades earlier when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and a rare form of uterine cancer.


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