Posts Tagged ‘Cancer’

Looking over some of the poetry of John Milton (1608-1674)¬† yesterday evening, I stumbled over one I hadn’t read in many years. It has no title or date so far as I know but obviously comes from near the end of his life.

The lines that grabbed my attention were:

I am old and blind; /Men point at me as smitten by God’s frown; /Afflicted and deserted of my kind; /Yet I am not cast down.

I am weak, yet strong; /I murmur not that I no longer see; /Poor, old and helpless, I the more belong, /Father supreme, to Thee.

John Donne (1572-1681), whose life barely overlapped with that of Milton, wrote a short poem which is both amusing (as a play on his own name) and yet profound. I’ve long found it a delight.

A Hymn To God The Father

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.

A good many years later Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) sat in prison and wrestled with the question of which was the real Dietrich, the frightened or the brave. He built his question into a poem but could not really answer the question. He concluded the poem, entitled “Who Am I?” with these solemn words:

Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, you know me, O God. You know I am thine.

As I ruminate on those odd words from my doctor (“There are no more treatment options for your cancer”) I find a variety of Bible verses rise to the top of my consciousness for a few days, only to be supplanted soon by others. These past few days it has seemed¬† I can summarize what has been or at least has been intended as my life story: “Here am I, Lord.”

The rest is detail.


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My cancer has returned and is expected to be aggressive, which means I know I’m living in my own end times, my own eschaton. I have tried a bit of a thought experiment, trying to use my own situation to better imagine and identify with Bonhoeffer in prison. The circumstances, though, present too great a contrast. I’m home, not feeling too badly, and being cared for by a truly amazing wife.

Yes, like Bonhoeffer, I know the end is near but it is not unjust for me as it was for him. And I am 74, retired, thankful for a long and full life. He never reached 40. My life has been productive in minor ways (I’m glad to have had the privilege of helping people) but his life and his death were both productive in ways few of us will ever experience.

Nonetheless, I have “done my bit,” as the citizens of England used to say during WWII, doing their bit to contribute to the war effort.

Part of what makes Bonhoeffer so admirable is that he so effectively maintained his sense of the sovereignty of God, his trust in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, even when all the earthly evidence suggested that he was the victim of injustice. Injustice is the enemy of God and injustice seemed — to onlookers — to be dominating Bonhoeffer’s last years. Yet he chose to affirm in multiple ways that it was his Lord who reigned in his life. His was a faith deeper than appearances. He walked by faith, not by sight.

And God has been honoring him ever since.






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