Category Archives: Faith

The guy who gives thanks for his Stage 4 cancer.

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Courtesy James Chan, freeimages.com

His name is Mike and I’ve known him for over a decade. While we work for the same company, we’re now in different offices and I hadn’t seen him for a while. So it was through the grapevine that, about six months ago, I learned Mike has Stage 4 cancer.

I visited his office recently and had the chance to sit down and talk with him. Mike still goes to work every day. Some mornings he has chemo and is at his desk in the afternoon. He does this because he loves his job and his co-workers. (And, while not big in stature, he does it because Mike is one tough dude.)

He has now had a total of 26 sessions of chemo. At best, Mike is fighting this thing to a draw. But it’s not like a ref will step in and call the fight over. The cancer is still there, so the battle continues each day. Mike tells me it’s a grind, it’s not so much the cancer but the treatments that wear on him. He gets tired more easily. He has obviously lost some weight.

Mike believes in Jesus and prays to him each day. He gives thanks for all the good in his life, what’s known as a prayer of gratitude. And yes, he even gives thanks for the cancer. Mike mentioned something that a friend who had cancer told him once, and it’s a saying that he takes to heart:

Cancer brings hardships, but it also brings gifts.

Mike has found these gifts. It has brought him closer to his three college-age children and to his friends. It has rekindled his relationship with his kids’ mother, his ex-wife. It has caused him to stop and think about how fortunate he is, because life has given him so much.

We discussed Mike’s prognosis, and he told me he had “a 3% chance of making it 5 years”. I don’t know what that means if broken down to a year or two. But his answer told me that Mike is taking the long view, looking at the best possible scenario. At the same time, he tells me he has led a good life, and if it happens sooner he will be ready.

In a week, Mike is going to Lourdes. While there, he will bathe in the holy waters and pray to the Virgin Mary. It was not his idea, a friend told him he was going, the trip had been bought and paid for without Mike’s consent. His reaction: “I’ll go, and that way I can help all the people sick with cancer.” You see, even with Stage 4, Mike considers himself “healthy with cancer.”

Not by his choice, Mike will be ushered to and from Lourdes by the Order of Malta, a religious order that serves the sick. He will be watched over at all times by eight uniformed members of the group who will accompany him, carry him actually, to each prayer session at the Sanctuary of our Lady Of Lourdes and each visit to the healing waters of the nearby spring.

Will this cure Mike? I don’t know. But even if the cancer does eventually take Mike from this earth, it has lost. The cancer may break down his body, but it has not defeated his spirit or damaged his soul.

To paraphrase the words of Rudyard Kipling, Mike is one of those rare individuals who can meet triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same. He has looked cancer squarely in the eye and seen it for what it is, one more phase in what amounts to a long and happy life.

I will write a follow-up to this story in a few weeks about Mike’s experiences at Lourdes.

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Underground Spirituality: Preachers, Rogues and True Believers of the NYC Subways.

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Jerry Attrick/freeimages.com

When I come into New York City to go to work each day I usually walk a mile from Port Authority to my office on the east side of Manhattan. But, when it’s precipitating or I need to shave a few minutes off my commute, I head underground to the NYC subway system, specifically the 7 train.

To get to the 7, I pay my fare and walk a few hundred yards down a wide tunnel where I pass throngs of people of all colors and nationalities. It is the United Nations of subway lines and reinforces the idea that we are truly a nation of immigrants. But most interesting to me is that most days I spot men and women promoting their own version of the spiritual truth.

The most obvious are the subway preachers, calling out to all who pass in their Hispanic or Caribbean-flavored English. There is one passionate fellow in short and tie who stands out. A worn bible in hand, he moves swiftly from person to person, side-stepping 10 feet to the right, then to the left. He implores each one he can reach to “find the Lord Jeeeeeezus, he is your salvation”, and says it as if he believes it is the key to his own salvation. And maybe it is.

There are the mostly African-American Jehovah’s Witnesses, always dressed in their Sunday best. They solemnly stand by their portable carts of religiousmagazines and books. They do not preach but it appears they are available for counsel and I wonder if their advice is filtered through their belief that the end of the world is imminent, that God’s kingdom is near at hand.

The tunnel leading to the #7 train.

The tunnel leading to the 7.

Then there are the pairs of well-scrubbed, smiling 20-somethings, dressed like young professionals. They pass out postcards invitations to a free showing of Dianetics, The Story of Book One. It’s “the film about the book that started it all”, the all being the Church of Scientology. What’s with these kids I wonder, have they not seen Going Clear? They always appear to be out-of-towners, probably new to the city, looking for a place where they can fit in and this is it.

On more than one occasion, I have seen the flip-side of the Dianetics kids, middle-aged men who look like they have led hard lives, handing out religious pamphlets from the shady Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. Yes, the same Tony Alamo who was convicted in 2009 of being a child sex offender for having underage brides in several states. He is now serving 175 years in prison, yet somehow his ministry lives on.

Perhaps most puzzling to me are the two elderly, Asian grandmother-types who I see every few months. They hand out the same pamphlet with a message that seems contrary to their always smiling faces, warning (in all caps) to “NEVER RECEIVE 666, THE MARK OF THE BEAST”. I am aware this is pulled from a biblical prophecy in Revelations, but this brochure has given it a modern-day twist.

It seems that as part of the upcoming “cashless society”, the “global government” will be implanting microchips into the back of our hands. These chips include some sort of bar code that contains the number 666, otherwise know as the mark of the beast or Antichrist. And once these chips are implanted in us, well, the Antichrist has won and we are in big trouble.

We are warned to not comply with the chip implant program even though it means ‘THOSE WHO DO NOT SUBMIT WILL BE SYSTEMATICALLY EXCLUDED FROM EVERY ACTIVITY!” But no worries. Because it sets the stage for the ‘SECOND COMING OF JESUS CHRIST!! THE RAPTURE OF THE CHURCH IS IMMINENT!!” So it’s kind of a no win-win situation.

When I see these subway preachers, rogues and true believers, I take their literature, I listen to what they have to say, try to greet them warmly with my eyes. They are on their own path, one that is not my own. But ultimately we are trying to reach the same place, a sort of union with something greater than ourselves, even if our vision of how to get there is very different.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October 5, 2015.

A Priest and an Atheist Walk into a Bar. (A Story about Faith.)

Andrew Marx/freeimages.com

Andrew Marx/ freeimages.com

What is the nature of faith? Why do some of us believe that there is a God that watches over us and impacts our lives, while others believe we are alone in the world and left to our own devices?

These are questions I have been pondering since I wrote my last Patheos story on “The Third Man” phenomena. In a nutshell, it was about how certain people in life-threatening situations detect a “presence” around them that they perceive as a guardian angel. I received a few reader comments questioning this assertion, some siding with neuroscientists who believe the effect is not supernatural, but is a function of the brain.

But what does it really come down to? Faith. You either have it or you don’t, and I recently came across an anecdote that cleverly illustrates the issue. It comes the late-author David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech he gave titled This is Water. In it, Foster Wallace tells the tale of two men chatting in a bar, and their different takes on the role God plays in our lives. I’ve paraphrased the story below:

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. While they’re old friends, they have very different ideas on God—one is a priest and the other is an atheist. They begin arguing about the existence of God.

The atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I haven’t given God a chance. I even tried the prayer thing. It didn’t work.”

The priest asks with some incredulity, “Did you really pray? When did this happen?”

“Just last month,” replies the atheist. “I got caught away from the camp in a terrible blizzard. I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing. It was 50 below, and so I prayed. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m going to die if you don’t help me’.”

The priest looks at the atheist with a puzzled expression and exclaims, “Well then you must believe in God now. After all, here you are, alive!”

The atheist rolls his eyes and says, “No way, that’s not how it happened. A couple of Eskimos came wandering by and they showed me the way back to camp.”

The same story. Two different perspectives. The priest sees the man’s rescue as an act of divine intervention, while the atheist sees it as sheer happenstance, his own good fortune. Is one point-of-view correct and the other misguided? Or is it possible they both men are correct and that God’s existence is dependent on our belief—if you’re a non-believer, God ceases to exist?

I turned to my spiritual mentor, the late businessman-turned-philosopher John Templeton, for guidance on this issue and found a passage in one of his books that may provide an answer. Templeton believes that spirituality is a personal issue, based on “the unique divine experiences of the individual believer.” He wonders if there isn’t a reason why some believe in a higher power:

Can a person’s consciousness become activated through spiritual practices such as prayer? And can this activation in a person’s consciousness generate greater expressions of spirituality? Could this be what some people describe as “living the spiritual life,” rather than being “religious”?

Perhaps faith is not something we are born with, but something we activate by engaging in practices like prayer and meditation. And those who do these activities on a regular basis find that they are better able to connect with something greater than themselves, a life force that many identify as God.

The atheist did not believe it, but perhaps prayer was the key to his survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet, if Templeton’s adage is true, he would need to continue his practice of prayer to make his sense of faith come to life, to become fully receptive to the idea that his encounter with his rescuers on that night was more than just a stroke of good luck.

This story previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 29, 2015.