Sunday, April 24, 2011

#319: Why Do You Seek the Living Among the Dead?


Too many angels...
And as they were afraid, and bowed down [their] faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? ~ Luke 24:5

This wasn't today's Easter gospel lesson, but it is one of my favorite parts of the story, along with the scene where Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Even after all they had been through together, when the moment of truth (TRUTH) arrived, the disciples didn't recognize Jesus when they saw him. I don't think we're much different from they were.

I was really looking forward to Holy Week this year. What with having come back from the dead and all, I thought I would have special insight, that the season would have special meaning for me. I anticipated praying the Stations of the Cross, the foot washing on Thursday, the somber grief of Friday evening and the bells and first joyful "Alleluia" of Saturday's Easter Vigil. It's the holiest season of the year, and the most beautiful liturgy of the church year. I couldn't wait.

Then, on Tuesday morning the phone rang.

My friend was directing a play, and one of the actors had fallen very ill. Could I cover for him? I didn't have to think twice. Julieanne was an angel to me during my illness. She was a faithful friend and visitor. She made it her personal mission to give me a reason to stay alive by producing a staged reading and rehearsing it slowly over several months to give me time to recuperate and prepare. I didn't consider refusing for an instant.

Of course, after I agreed, she told me there was just one hitch. The play was opening in two days. Maundy Thursday.Damn. But, a friend is a friend, and a promise is a promise. I told her to email me my lines, and I would be at the theatre in time for her to show me where to stand.

Adult themes. Not for the faint of
heart. But then, neither is life.
The play, The Happy Hour, by Sterphen Currens is a world premier.It is about Seth, a young man living through New York City's AIDS holocaust of the 1980's. I play his mentor, Gordon, an old, gay professor whose platonic, fatherly love helps to inspire and guide Seth along his journey through the hell of self destruction, judgement, and ultimately, redemption. It was an easy role for me to wrap my mind around. I have had many such teachers over the years. And there's enough of Gordon in me that it wasn't hard to put him together.Teh playwright has crafted some lovely moments for the role, particularly one scene where Gordon tells Seth about what it was like to grow up in a world where gay men had to be fearful of violence, the law, even one another. I'm lucky to be the first person to play this beautiful part. But as it turns out, this is more than just another chance to get on stage.

I lived in New York during the 'Eighties. I remember the painful lunch in a favorite diner where my friend revealed his positive test results. Mrs P and I attended the memorial services. We cried with our sick friends and prayed for our dead ones. I remember the beautiful, talented young men, so full of life, who faded from a world that didn't know quite what to make of losing them. The American stage was decimated in ways that we may never really appreciate. When it was time for us to leave the city, and I saw an opening at a theatre in Lexington where Mrs P's sister and her family lived, I jumped at the interview. Once I found out the kind of work they did at Actors' Guild, I was sold. They were committed to contemporary theatre. Their plays were rarely more than five years old. Consequently, much of their repertory touched on this contemporary crisis, the AIDS epidemic that had taken so many of the people I loved. It was a story I wanted to help tell.

Old Soldier, Larry Kramer
That was a long time ago. AIDS is still killing people, but it has long since stopped being the disease du jour in fashionable circles. I recently read an interview of playwright and activist Larry Kramer in Salon where he lamented the new generation's changed attitude towards AIDS in particular and the gay community in general.
I don't know why so many gay men don't want to know their history. I don't know why they turned their back on the older generation as if they don't want to have anything to do with them. I would like us to get beyond that.
Yeah, I know. It kind of sounds like one of those "What's the matter with kids today?" speeches that old guys are always spouting, but there's something important here, too.

The story isn't being told.

Like so many in our culture, the gay community is losing track of its history. The pride and strength that we all can find in the struggles and triumphs of those sometimes heroic, but always human warriors for dignity and justice is being lost. Their story must continue, no matter how painful it is to hear.

I moved from Brooklyn to the Bible Belt to help tell that story. It's been a long time since I've had a chance to do that on stage.

So what does all this have to do with Easter? A lot, I think. The dead have taken over so much of our world. Our stages are filled with the works of dead playwrights and warmed over versions of cartoons - characters that never lived at all. Seemingly brain-dead politicians and demagogues preach worn-out gospels of fear and division that encourage cynicism and weakness. Athletes we don't know playing games we can't play are used to sell us shirts and shoes we don't need. We spend time and money - we spend our lives - seeking inspiration from the dead, when real inspiration, real love lives and walks among us every day.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdaline
Lavinia Fontana
Like Mary in the garden, we look into the eyes of Christ every day and see a bum, a fag, a socialist, a fascist, a fat pig, a tree hugger, a wet back, a terrorist. For thirty years - my god, can it be thirty years? - we have looked into the eyes - or is that avoided the eyes?- of men and women dying of AIDS and asked, "What have you done with him? Tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." And all the time, the body of Christ lay bruised and broken right before us.

The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.That phrase first appears in Psalm 118: 22, and it is repeated in the New Testament over and over. What the world rejects, God uses to build the foundations of God's kingdom. The teenage mothers. The fatherless children. The deadbeat dads. The abused and the abusers. The unemployed. The unpopular. The untouchables.

The story has to be remembered for God's sake, and for ours. The story has to be told. Just as Julieanne's love helped to bring me back from the edge of death, God's love, working through us, can help to redeem all of God's suffering children. And who among us is excluded from that group?

I love my Bible. I say my prayers. I rejoice in worship and praise. These things connect me with the communion of saints, the "great cloud of witnesses" who testify to God's loving grace throughout the centuries. But when the hymns have all been sung and the communion cups washed and put away for another week, Christ is still among us, waiting for us to serve the living. As Gus, Seth's therapist in The Happy Hour tells him as he struggles with his own sense of purpose and identity:
Peace begins with you. Love is a gift from God. Justice is elusive.
We may never know a just world. But with God's help and love, we have to capacity to live in peace, with our Creator, our neighbors and our selves. Christ doesn't live in prayer books and hymnals. He lives in the eyes and hearts of our sisters and brothers. That is where we must seek him. That is where we must serve him.

That is the story I want to tell. That is why I make theatre. When I woke up on Tuesday, the opportunity to do that was already waiting for me.The stone had rolled away in the night, and I didn't even hear it moving.Strange as it seems, I believe this is the reason God redeemed me from death's grasp. I may not make a bit of difference in the world, but in serving my neighbors, I serve the God who loves them.

May God grant all of us such a mission and, when we need them, such lucky servants.

Peace and Alleluia,

Pennsy

Friday, April 15, 2011

# 318: My First Year as a Cancer Fighter

 
Dr Wayne Colin,
ENT surgeon.
April 16, 2010. That was the day they told me I had cancer. I opened my eyes after six hours of surgery. Dr Colin was standing there in the fog. "Was it cancer?" I asked. "Yes," he said, "but we knew that."

Well, he knew that. I had been waiting for the final results to come in. There they were. And a year later, here I am. Not dead. Happy Anniversary.

It started a few weeks before, actually. I was trimming my beard and noticed the lump on the right side of my neck. I thought it was one of those "swollen glands" that my Mum was always feeling around for whenever I claimed I was too sick to go to school. I figured it would go away. It didn't. After a few days, I asked Mrs P to feel it. She insisted I call Dr Hall the next morning.


Dr Madonna Hall,
Family Medicine
 They got me in quickly, and Dr Hall peeked and poked and furrowed her brow a lot. "I want you to get a CT scan and to see the Ear Nose and Throat specialist. And we should get a biopsy."

I made the appointments and called Mrs P. That was the last time I saw a doctor without her for the next eight months. It was also the last time I was Dr Hall until November. I was moving into a whole new medical world.

We did the CT scan and met with Dr Colin. He poked and prodded and furrowed his brow. He used the flashlight AND a camera that went up my nose and down my throat. He looked at the CT scan, and decided we better not do the biopsy. There might not be time. We scheduled a PET scan. It looked bad. That was April 14th. Two days later, I had surgery.

Afterwards, I met a doctor whose name I don't remember to talk about Radiation and Chemo. I really don't remember much of the conversation. They told me I was too heavy for their equipment, so I'd have to drive an hour to Richmond and back every day for treatments. A few hours later, they called and told me that my insurance company had declared my cancer to be a pre-existing condition that would not be covered. That's when I learned that it's easier to fight tumors than insurance companies.


There is hope for all who enter here.

Lexington Clinic set me up with an appointment at the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky. They said it was because UK had more financial assistance available. What they meant was that Lexington Clinic was a for profit hospital and it didn't make sense for them to treat people who couldn't pay. I would still end up bankrupt, but at least Markey would treat me.

By this time, Mum had driven down. She stayed with us through the summer. She fed me, cried with me, prayed for me. and helped Mrs P to get through the hardest year of our lives. I owe my health to the folks in the white lab coats. I owe my life to my mother and my wife. We drove together past the gate house to meet with the radiation doctor at Markey


Dr. Mahesh Kudrimoti,
Radiation Oncology

The receptionist told me it was OK to just call him "Dr K." Most people couldn't remember or pronounce his name anyway. We waited quite a while to see him. I watched the first of what would come to seem like a million hours of FOX news. I think that's what kept my sustaining sense of angry sarcasm alive during my treatments. Mocking them gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. A nurse called my name and took us into an exam room. She weighed me, Took my pressure and my temperature, and drew some blood. They draw a lot of blood when you have cancer. You have a lot more than you think you do. Trust me. Then she led us to another room where we waited for Dr K to arrive.

Dr Kudrimoti laid it on the line. I was still in grave danger. Even after surgery, my cancer had about a 50% survival rate. The treatment was going to be very long and very hard. I would need to have my teeth pulled because an infection from my periodontal disease would kill me during chemo. I had to have a tube put through my abdomen and into my stomach so I could eat, because I would not be able to swallow once the radiation had burned my saliva glands away and roasted the inside of my throat. I might not lose my hair, but I would probably lose my beard and could lose much of my hearing. Dr K was a no bullshit kind of guy. I appreciated that. Mum decided she didn't want to accompany us on those particular visits anymore. It wasn't always easy for me either. Toward the end of my treatment, my blood pressure would soar and I wold break out in a sweat every time we met with him. He was all business, but went about his work with a compassionate confidence that made the anxiety seem a little more bearable. But, there was one more doc to meet.

Dr. Suzanne Arnold,
Medical Oncology
Dr Arnold was my Medical Oncologist - the Chemo doctor. She lead a team of specialists who all met with Mrs P and Mum and me on our first visit. We saw nurses, nutritionists, pharmacists, residents, medical students, I don't know how many people were in and out of that little room. Dr Arnold poked and prodded, but did not furrow her brow. She smiled and encouraged us. It was going to be hard, but it was going to be alright. We would see her or Dr. K nearly every day for the next few months. Dr. Arnold would manage the Chemo side of my treatment, including weird side effects like yeast infections in my mouth and the disappearance of my white blood cells. This whole gang of experts coordinated to kill the cancer that was killing me. And they got the little bastard.

There is one professional whose picture I don't have, which is a damn shame because as far as I'm concerned, somebody ought to build a statue of her. Her name is Dee Holly and she is one of the angels put on this earth to be an oncology nurse. Dee was the person I saw every day. She smiled and patted my hand. She gave me the daily shots that kept me alive when my treatment resulted in a blood clot that hung up thiscloseto my heart. Dee coordinates the Head and Neck cancer support group who welcomed me and kept me hoping. She was also the one who flew into the room and gave me a big hug when my first scan after treatment showed no more signs of cancer. Her face may not be on this page, but it will be printed on my heart forever.

There were others. The psychologist and psychiatrist who helped me keep sane. The dentist who pulled my teeth and exchanged Shakespeare quotes with me as I lay stoned and bleeding in his chair. The surgeon who put my feeding tube in while quietly fighting his own battle with cancer, (which he is winning, by the way.) All told, I can think of about fifty nurses, doctors, technicians and volunteers who were in my corner as I fought this disease. Every one of them was an expert, and every one of them treated me with kindness and dignity. God bless them all.

And God. Yes, what about God? There were many times I asked myself where God was during all this. Why was my family having to go through this? I had already lost my career, my sanity, my financial security and my house was in danger of foreclosure. What more did God want from us? I prayed into the silence until I couldn't bear it any longer. Eventually I stopped praying altogether. I was too angry to face Him. The only time I could speak his name was when I was puking. I would lean over the toilet and shout, "God damn you, get out of me," as I imagined my body rejecting the cancer and spewing it out of my mouth. Turns out, that was the prayer God answered.

Of course, I had some help. People prayed everywhere. Friends I knew in grade school, high school, and college. Friends I had only met on the Internet and friends I have acted with for decades. Friends of Mum's whom I have never met and parishioners in my brother-in-law's church who had no idea who I was. Friends from my old job. Friends from my old church. One had a yard sale and sent us the proceeds. One sent us a notebook computer when my laptop died. Another sent me an iPad so I could keep writing when I couldn't hold the notebook up anymore. People sent music to listen to, books to read, soup to eat, and news of the universe outside my bedroom and the radiation clinic that were my world for the summer. My neighbor mowed the law for us without saying a word. Friends I have loved for years, and a couple I barely knew stopped by to talk and laugh and visit. When I told a friend that my hospital roomate had a voice like Billy Bob Thornton in Slingblade, he broght me a bag of Taters so we could make French Fries.
  
And the theatre. My God, the theate. My first, best love, the one who lifted me to the heights and broke my heart: the theatre reached out to me with such love that I am crying as I type this. Companies all over the Bluegrass held fundraisers for us. They donated benefit performances. The passed the hat. My beloved Actors' Guild was the first. Someone brought me a DVD of the cast of RENT interrupting their curtain call to remember me. They started a fund for people to send support and dozens of folks, many of whom I'd never met wrote to say that they appreciated my
work over the years and wanted to help. Newspapers printed stories about us. People shared links to my blog. More than once, Mum would sit weeping in the living room. "I'm just overwhelmed by how kind people are. I had no idea how many people loved you." I felt the same way. I still do.

Where was God? God was busy as hell. God was sending hundreds of ministers to do the work of healing my soul, even as dozens of doctors were curing my body. I wish I could post pictures of all of them. All I can do is offer grateful prayers and live the rest of my life with the joyful knowledge that love really is more powerful than fear. Blessings are more powerful than curses. And kindness, no matter how small, make all the difference in the world. Even if the cancer had killed me, my heart would still have been made whole by God and the people who did God's work in my life.

Easter is in a week: the feast of the Resurrection. I know a lot more about resurrection than I did a year ago. During the time I was sick, Death was my constant companion. I used to wake up and see him standing in the hall outside my room. "Not yet, you son of a bitch," I would say, and he would stand silently waiting. Well, let him wait. My tomb is still empty, too. God rolled away the stone and gave me back my life, but the man who walked out of the cave was not the same as the one who went in. This life is not mine. It is God's gift to me.

And so, here I am - a living miracle. I can say with Scrooge, "I am not the man I was." I have so much to do. There are miles to be run. Theatre to be made. Stories to be heard. Hands to be held. Tears to be shared. I have a lot of prayers to pay back, and a lot of love to pass on. It's going to be a busy rest of my life. I'm determined to love every minute of it.

Peace,

Pennsy







Wednesday, April 13, 2011

#317: The Pied Piper of the Dog Park

Jake and I returned to the park today. It was a much more pleasant run: sunny and 61 degrees. We even picked up a couple of other dogs whose humans sat on the bench while we all did laps. I felt like the Pied Piper leading my pack around the park.

Not hurting, Just
complaining a little.
We ran and walked for about half an hour. I wanted to take it easy because Monday's rainy run left me feeling a little puny the next day. I'm also getting a little bit of complaining from my right knee. Not pain or soreness or anything like that, just a little kvetching as if it doesn't really feel like doing too much today. I don't mind giving it a little rest. Besides, I have a long, slow run planned for Saturday and I want to be fresh.

Saturday is a big day for me. It's my D-day. It was April 16 of last year when I had my surgery and was diagnosed with cancer. It's hard to believe that it's only been a year. So much has changed. I'm working on an anniversary post in my head, and I'll try to have it up by the weekend. There's a lot to digest.

Yesterday's workout wasn't the greatest. I spent a long time in the gym, almost an hour and a half, but it felt like I hardly got anything done. I worked on lower body and core yesterday. I like those exercises, but want to keep them as far from my long weekend runs as possible. Increased the weight on squats, straight leg dead lifts, and lunges. I'm also working on widening my grip on the lat pull downs. My sides are pretty blubbery under my arms and I want to build up some muscle under there. I'm getting better at the hanging leg raises for my lower abs, and found a crunch with a twist that really burns. The belly is a long way from washboard status, but it is nice to feel something working under there.


The last time I shivered in
the afternoon.
 So, I guess I did get a lot done, but I just felt exhausted when I got home. I laid down to read for a while, and started shivering. Long-time Pennsy followers will understand when I say that shivering in the middle of the day brings back some pretty troubling memories of chemo and the crazy hat Mum made for me. No that I have hair, I don't need the hat, but I put on my comfy gray sweats and climbed under the down tick while Jake curled up close to keep me warm. Once my left brain convinced me that I didn't have cancer, I decided it must be the onset of a cold. Mrs P got home, cooed over me a little, and made some comfort food: meatloaf and potato salad. Not your traditional "Feed a Cold" fare, but it works for me. I woke up this morning feeling a little groggy, but fine. I'm thinking now that I wasn't shivering because I was sick. I was shivering because I was cold. See, the window was open in our room and the chilly air was blowing in on me as I read. I went to see my therapist this morning, then took Jake to the park and felt fine. I really must learn to look for the simplest solution to things.

Mrs P wants to go out for dinner tonight. She deserves it, after all her tender nursing last night. Maybe we'll find a place that serves chicken soup, you know, just in case.

Peace,
Pennsy

Monday, April 11, 2011

#316: Man's Soggiest Friend

I am Jake. I am excellent at running. I am
excellent at everything!
Jake was so very patient and good in the house yesterday while we were out of town, that I decided he deserved a chance to go out and run around. We went to the dog park. It had been raining steadily for most of the day, but when I heard it stop, he and I trundled off into the car with his "Park Bag." It's an old tote bag that contains a leash, a bottle of water, a plastic dish, and some plastic bags for collecting poop. He recognizes it and runs to sit by the front door knob as soon as one of us picks it up. We made our way to the car and pulled away from the house just as a light drizzle started up again. By the time we got to the park, it was raining in earnest. Jake an I sat in the car and read the paper while we listened to April showers on the roof. He likes the opinion section. I read the funnies. When it slowed down again, he and I made out way to the park. naturally, we were the only idiots there.

It's about half a mile around the dog park. He and I walked in the light rain, enjoying the gray sky and the cool air. I thought to myself, "This would be perfect for a run." I was scheduled to lift weights today, but I didn't feel like going in. I told myself that a man my age can't be too careful with his recovery time, and that convinced me to take the day off. (I'll probably need to be careful about over-using that excuse.) But out there, alone in the park with my boy, I really felt like a run. I checked my clothes. Polo shirt: unconventional, but passable. Warm up Pants: perfect for a chilly day. Old, squishy Nike trail runners: not what I'd wear for a road run, but serviceable on the grass path. I checked in with my workout partner, "Wanna run, Jake?" he winked his approval, so I stopped by the can to drop in a bag of doody and away we went.

Naturally, it started raining harder as soon as we made the commitment to another lap. The circle starts with a long climb, the only one on the circle, but it is fairly steep. Once you're over the crest, the rest of the loop is a gradual slope down and back around to the base of the hill again. It's a pretty place, you just have to watch where you step.

We did two miles together, four laps around. He kept up very well,and seemed to have a good time. I say he kept up. What I mean is he indulged me as I crept along. He may not be in tip top shape for a Golden Retriever, but he's still in better condition than I am. We took turns leading, with him detouring occasionally when a particularly important smell caught his nose. Each time we passed the gate, he made for it as if to say, "Hey stupid! You aren't going to keep running around in the rain, are you?" But each time I turned the corner, he gamely tagged along.

When we returned to the car, the windows fogged instantly. We waited for the defroster to clear the mist and warm us up, then motored back home to a dry towel for Jake and some dry sweats for me.

I used to imagine what it would be like to have a dog I could run with. Jake and I spent a lot of time together over the last year, and the hours in bed didn't do either of our bodies much good. Today, if felt as if we were helping one another. I finally have a running partner who I don't feel guilty about asking to slow down.

This may turn out to be very good for both of us.

Peace,

Pennsy

Sunday, April 10, 2011

#315: From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God.

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai:  “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.
~Jonah 1: 1-3

We went to another funeral, today. Mrs P's aunt passed away on Friday. She had been sick in a nursing home for a long time, and her daughter said her passing was easy. The family gathered as they always do, in Charles Mac's funeral parlor to view the body and hear the stories and pray for the family.

After the service, we visited Mrs P's brother. I was the only boy in my family, so he is the closest thing to a big brother that I've ever had. Like me, he was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago. I was lucky. Brother was not. Neck surgery got most of my cancer. His was in his colon and liver and was inoperable. Radiation and a couple doses of chemo killed what was left of mine. Eighteen rounds of chemo left him weak and sick with tumors that were still "progressing," as the doctors say. Brother is done with the poison. He has chosen to have no more chemo. He is waiting for God to call him home.

And I am alive and running. It makes no sense. God rarely does. Cancer never does. My little brain can't understand either God or cancer, not really. Both seem to operate under rules that I can't grasp and can't control. This one is taken; that one remains. This one lives in misery; that one thrives in comfort and prosperity. This one barely survives the treatment; that one doesn't survive the disease. These are the big questions, folks. Why does terrible stuff happen? Why do innocent people suffer and wicked people succeed? Why doesn't God take care of all this?

Why, indeed?

A few years ago, I was depressed beyond all measure. I wasn't seeing a therapist. I wasn't taking any meds. I hadn't even been diagnosed. I was in the grip of a fatal disease, and didn't know it. A friend once asked me if I was ever afraid that the depression would win. One night, it almost did. I became convinced that my wife, my family, my friends, everyone would be better off if I was dead. I went to the medicine chest and poured every pill I could find into one bottle and swallowed them all. I choked down a glass of water, and went out into the moonlight to die in our backyard. I prayed. "God, I know you can't forgive me, not for this. But please understand. Eternity in Hell will be better than one more minute of this life." I wanted to die. I didn't care what the consequences were. I started to feel the buzz of the chemicals working in me. I knew it wouldn't be long now. I watched the stars move across the sky and the fireflies as they played among the honeysuckles. It was a beautiful summer night. At some point, I stumbled into the house and passed out across the bed in our guest room. In the morning, I woke up to see my beautiful wife standing at the foot of the bed, sunbeams breaking across her face. "Did you take all these pills?"

"Yes."

"Did you try to kill yourself?"

"Yes."

"ALL these pills?"

"Yes."

"My God. You should be dead already."

She was right. I took more than enough pills to kill me. But I didn't die. I got help. I found doctors, priests, friends, and counselors who ministered to me and guided me out of the dark. And I realized something. I had not lived through a suicide attempt. I had died and been brought back to life. I looked God in the eye and said, "Here. This life is too much for me to bear. Please take it back." And God said to me, "No. Life is not yours to give or take. You will live and die as I will, not as you choose."

My life is not mine. It belongs to God.

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. He said:

“In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.

From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.

You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers swept over me.

I said, ‘I have been banished 
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’

The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.

To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, LORD my God,
brought my life up from the pit.

“When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, LORD,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.

“Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.

But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’”

And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
~Jonah 2

At his darkest hour, Jonah realized that his life belonged to God. He could not run from God. He could not run from life. And he could not run from the work God called him to do. He had ministry to perform and God was going to insist that he do it. Imagine what it must have been like to stand on the shore, watching that great fish swim back out to see, and know that you had been impossibly, irrationally saved from certain death. Jonah watched that fish, then he went do work, serving his God the best way he knew how. He had learned the same lesson I learned that sunny summer morning. His life was not his own. It belonged to God.

Last year, God sent a fish to save me again. On my sick bed, I cried, "God, where are you? Why are you letting this happen to me? To the people I love?" I didn't realize it then, but God sent a great fish named "Medicine" that spouted radiation and chemotherapy and compassion to rescue me from the storm of cancer and deliver me to dry land.

Today I knelt at my big brother's bedside. We prayed together.  I have been cast up on the shore. He is adrift, unsure if there is a monster coming to save him, or to take him to the bottom. Neither of us knows why. But we both know something even more important. We both know that God has work for us to do. There is still ministry to be done. The Lord may not send us to preach to Nineveh, but he will send people to hear the word as only we can speak it. They will visit his bedside and his living room. They will come to the theatre or to this blog. God has work for us both to do, and we have no choice but to do it. No matter how inconvenient or how much it hurts. Our lives are not ours to give away. They belong to God. And they begin and end for reasons we can never know or understand.

Living or dying. Sick or healed. It doesn't matter how we live our lives. What matters is why. For as long as I have know him, Brother has lived his life to do God's work in a sin-sick world. Cancer can't change that. He could barely walk this morning, but he gathered himself, crawled into the car, and went to church. The Spirit that lives in him is stronger than any disease. He is a living witness to the saving power of Jesus. And he doesn't have to say a word. His cancer hurts. He doesn't want to suffer. But more than that, he wants to be God's servant every second that he has left on this earth. That is why Brother lives. That is his ministry to me and our family and everyone who knows him. He expects the cancer to kill him. But he knows that it will never kill the love of Christ that lives in him. He is still alive, because God still has work for him to do.

God's work isn't always easy. Sometimes it seems unfair. Sometimes, it doesn't even make senst to the person who does it.

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

But the LORD replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the LORD God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”

But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
~Jonah 3:10 - 4:10

None of us knows what work God has in store for us. We don't know who needs us, or where God will send us, but there is one thing we can know for certain... if we are alive, then God has a need that only we can fill. If we are still breathing in this world, then there is work to be done that no one else can do. We are God's ministers on Earth, whether we choose to serve, or to run away, like Jonah tried to do. Like I tried to do on a ship made of pills. We each have a vocation. We each have a ministry.We have more than just life. We have purpose.

"Why do we suffer and die?"

It's a big question. But there is one bigger.

"Why do we live?"

Brother thinks he lives because God isn't ready to take him yet. The Lord needs him here for a little while longer. He is God's minister until God says his time is over.

And so am I.

And so are you

May we all be as faithful servants as my big brother, until God decides our work is finished.
 
Peace,

Pennsy

Saturday, April 9, 2011

#314: Krispy Kreme Challenge 5K... A New Personal Best!


Yes, he is dressed as a giant donut...
At the halfway mark of the race, which will be located on the backside of Nutter Field House near South Gate 10 of the stadium, there will be a large sign dividing “Competitive Runners” from the “Challenger Runners”. “Competitive Runners” will round the corner at the halfway mark and head back on the course to the finish line. “Challenger Runners” will stop off in the grassy area behind Nutter Field House where boxes of doughnuts and cups of water will be waiting. Please grab one box of doughnuts and hang out in the grassy area while you eat your doughnuts. When you have finished, please bring your empty Krispy Kreme box to the “Doughnut Check Station” where you will receive a special sticker for your bib if you completed the dozen doughnut challenge. Volunteers will take your empty box and show you the way back on to the running course to the finish line.

That's right, it's disgusting. It was also a very fun race.

I used a long warm up this time. Mrs P was not with me, so when I arrived at Commonwealth Stadium at 9:15 to pick up my bib, I was on my own. The morning was overcast and comfortable, 63 degrees.  I took a long walk around the parking lot, then started to jog a little. I would jog for ten or fifteen steps, then walk some more. I tried to see how slowly I could run, just to get the joints moving and break a little sweat. (My dad was a big sweater, and I inherited that trait from him. It doesn't take much to get me soaked.) I stopped by the car a couple of times for a sip of water and to remove my warm-ups a layer at a time. Around 10 minutes before the race, I was down to my shorts and shirt. I toweled off, and made my way to the starting pack.

There's an art to picking your place at the start. Sometimes there are signs. "Fast runners start here. Slow runners from this point back. Stumblers and fat men running to the rear." You don't want to be too far back, or you get jammed up in a bunch of walkers. On the other hand, if you're too close to the front, you spend the first quarter mile of the race being passed by speedier runners of all shapes, sizes, and ages. This can really break your spirit before you even get started. I usually try to position myself near the baby carriages. These parents tend to set a pretty good pace, and they hardly ever spit, a real plus on a windy day.

There is something inspiring about watching young people run. I admit, I usually only see this from behind, but still, a really smooth stride is a wonder to behold. A good runner seems barely to touch the ground. It's as if contact with the earth is merely incidental to what they're really doing: skimming along through the air. During warm ups, I watched a young woman and man running sprints across the parking lot. They would race from lane to lane, from light pole to light pole. Their strides had such efficiency and grace, I couldn't take my eyes off of them. I was tempted to be jealous for a moment - two beautiful, athletic young people in love, running together in the cool morning air - but then all I could do was admire them. It was like watching dolphins play. Just lovely.

About a mile into the race, I latched on to a woman who looked to be about my age. She was also taking frequent breaks, and we seemed to be on about the same pace for a while. One would pass the other on a run interval, then the other would take the lead the next time we switched. There was only one climb on the course, and not much of one at that, but when we reached the top, this lady did something extraordinary. She pulled off her shirt and started running in her sports bra. Now look, there are plenty of very sexy women my age, believe me. And I notice them. I do. My running partner was not one of them. From the back, she looked a little like I imagine I would look in a white sports bra. Lots of rolls and bubbles and folds and things. Not what you would call traditionally beautiful. But as she bunched her shirt up in her right hand and cruised away, leaving me in her dust, I could only cheer her on under my gasping breath. God bless you, Lady of a Certain Age. For one brief sweaty moment, you rocked my world.

The course was an "out and back" layout. At the halfway point, some of us turned, others stopped and faced the "Challenge." I was not among the eaters. My stomach is used to liquids and salads, not lard and dough. I was amazed to see so many donut eaters fly by me near the 2 mile mark. I guess they were burning sugar, like dragsters fueled by Nitro. Far as I could tell, everyone "held their donuts," but I can't vouch for what happened when they got home and all those carbs started "unloading."

Even without sugar-charged racing fuel, I had a good race. The course was flat. According to MapMyRun.com, not even a 100 foot gain. My goal was to break 40:00.  I finished in 38:36, a new personal best. I took four minutes off my time in the 5K by walking 55% of the way!
I used the intervals from my training run on Thursday. 40 seconds of running/50 seconds of walking. This felt silly for the first four intervals. I had barely rounded the first turn when my watch beeped and I started walking. The strollers zipped by me. At the next beep, I started running again. Nice and easy. Then at the first hill,  I started catching and passing people. It really worked! During the last mile, I ran with two young, fit looking twenty-somethings who had to sprint the last fifty yards to pabeat me to the finish. I felt like I was striking a blow for geezers everywhere. I had a good long cool down, then stopped by the registration tent to pick up my shirt. My XL shirt. Been a long time since I could fit into a shirt with only one "X" on the tag.

What's next? Well, no more races for a while. There's a 5K that benefits Woodford County's no-kill animal shelter in April that I want to run. There's a five miler in Frankfort in June.  But for now, I'm going to take it easy. Jeff Galloway says that long, slow runs will help to build my endurance. After today's race, I have to say I find him very persuasive. I want to get stronger so I can even out my R/W/R ratio. I'd like to be able to run more than I walk for the next race.  I still have my eye on running a 12 minute mile. And down the road, there's the Bluegrass 10,000 on July 4. That's one I've been dreaming about for along time. Sometimes when I'm running, I think of that race, just to help keep my feet moving.

Mom reminded me of something this week. It's hard to believe that a few months ago I couldn't cross the street without having to sit down on a car bumper and rest. I remember that day very well. I'm not sure, but that may be the morning I started thinking about the Bluegrass 10K. After today's run, I'm starting to believe it's really going to happen.

Peace,
Pennsy.
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