Friday, December 26, 2014

What Cancer Means to Me: A Creative Writing Essay by Judi Murphy

Do you remember elementary school? Those silly creative writing assignments: "What Christmas Means to Me." I don't think I ever wrote that Christmas means long hours and chaos; Christmas means a lack of, or completely ineffective planning, and cramming hundreds of thousands of packages through a building equipped for far fewer. Christmas means short tempers and even shorter periods of sleep. Christmas means managers you haven't seen all year standing over your shoulder anxious to help -- and by "help," I mean tell you how to do a job you've done for over ten years, a job they've never done. Christmas means uncertain arrival times for aircraft, uncertain departure times for tractor trailers, and an endless stream of phone calls regarding said uncertainties. Christmas means upper management popping in to high five their partners, congratulate themselves and exchange gifts, while you remain another nameless peon in a sea of nameless peons. Christmas means warm lunchmeat sandwiches, and cold, crusty refried beans left over from the night shift's Christmas buffet.

As I left work this morning, I couldn't help but feel some sense of accomplishment for making it through my twenty-fifth Christmas ("peak season" as we refer to it) with UPS. I was thrilled to be making my way home to enjoy Christmas Eve with my family. But by the time I got there, the rain had soaked through my shirt, the sinus infection I'd been fighting had KO'd the top of my head down to my throat, and the "other thing," that thing we weren't going to discuss had gripped my heart. I'd been looking forward to Christmas, to the phones at work falling silent, to the glow of candlelight piercing the darkness of the sanctuary of Christmas Eve, to the joy of time spent with family. But with Christmas Eve finally here, it dawned on me that "the holidays" had arrived, and in just a few short days they'd be gone, and dealing with "the thing" would be back.

"The thing" is cancer. The "Big C." The thing I thought I'd been rid of last summer. The thing that showed up in my last round of blood work. "We'll talk about it after the holidays," the oncologist had said. And I'd been OK with that. The holidays seemed so far away. But now...

So, once again, my husband is a nutcase, and I am vacillating between trusting God for good health and facing the reality of bad health. I trust that God is good - no doubts about that -- but, I'd like to know the end of the story. I'm terrible when I'm really invested in a good book. I will turn to the last chapter and not read, but skim, for a name I know, a character I like -- "Did he make it OK? I'm not going to get all wrapped up in this guy if he's not even going to make it 'til the end of the book." It's  no different with life. If I'm going to have to undergo radiation I'm going to live differently than if my next three sets of tests show negative. If I'm going to be sick for a while there are things I wanna do now; if this was just a mistake in labs, I can go on about my business.

When I really start to break this whole thing down, and focus on specifics, I have to ask: What, exactly, would be different if I knew these things? Would I do that whole "live like I'm dying" thing? Skydiving. Rocky Mountain climbing. Or would I just take care of those things that mean something to others: the Last Will & Testament, the final thoughts, the "where to find the buried treasure?" Or is it simply doing all the stuff we've been talking about: switching insurance companies, refinancing -- silly details crossed off my list, so I can concentrate on getting better?

But life is not a book, at least not one in which we can peak ahead. With the same tenacity and persistence I do what I am called to do, what I've been trained to do, with the same patience and calm I refuse to get caught up in the panic and emotion of "peak season" at UPS, I will move forward in life. I will trust that God is good, that He holds the future -- my future in His hands, that He loves me; I will serve Him no matter how blindly, day after day, hour after hour. And will one day feel that sense of accomplishment as He says to me, "Well done, good and faithful servant... Enter into the joy of your Master."

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Never Miss Christmas Again!

My son, my firstborn was born more than twenty-four years ago. In less than a day, my life changed forever. I'd waited more than nine months to meet this little life, growing and changing, reading and learning, but nothing could have prepared me for the love, the almost instantaneous bond, the dependence between us. His first communication, a loud, strong, "crackling" wail gave me goosebumps, and rings in my ears even today. His scent, his tininess, the softness of his fingers, the warmth of his body against mine as he nursed, his coos, his infantile and unsteady movements -- all turned my heart inside out. I had become a "we," and nothing could ever be the same.

Last night, Christmas Eve, I should have been at church celebrating the arrival of A Holy Babe. Instead, I was at home, in pajamas, nursing the cold that has been plaguing all of us for the past three weeks or so. I was disappointed, sure, but mostly I was out of sorts. I don't like staying home from church under any circumstances, but on Christmas Eve... As I looked on Facebook today, at the many pictures and posts of last night's celebrations, I became even more out of sorts. If I can't celebrate it "properly," it's almost as if the holiday has completely passed me by -- like some Scrooge who never woke up from his dream, I have slept through Christmas Day. I suppose, if I were like Scrooge, living alone and choosing to remain cut off from folks, I could stick the tree out for tomorrow's trash, stow away all the lights and bows, pack up any remaining gifts, and vow to give it another go next year. But does Christmas stop being simply because I missed the hoopla, or even if I were to refuse to acknowledge it ever happened? No more than my son has ceased to exist to the people who were not present the day he entered that room.

Jesus, our Savior entered the humblest and neediest of bodies, under the simplest and most insignificant of circumstances, so that He, the God of All Creation might be joined with us, might know deeply and experientially our struggles and joys, might understand our limitations, might bond with our needs and emotions, might prove to us His inexplicable love for us, might be the perfect substitute for us as He fully accomplished something necessary and wonderful for us. Now folks can deny that, can change the story to some grand myth or allegory, can hide under their bedsheets or behind their "civil rights," but denying something has never made it cease to exist; calling something a fairytale doesn't make it Mother Goose; rejecting someone doesn't negate their authority over, or devotion toward you.

My son and I have a bond, through blood and tears, laughter and love, that no one would ever think to deny. Whether you've "missed Christmas" or you've been sitting in that same pew for the last thirty-four years, no one can change the story that changed the world more than two thousand years ago. Love it or hate it, deny it or accept, nothing will ever be the same; it is my prayer this Christmas Day that you will not be either.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Over the last few years, friends of mine and I have sat around -- as old folks tend to do -- meditating and pontificating on the current condition of society, and projecting and prophesying about what is to come. Some of those friends, like me, have found themselves frustrated and fearful at the reluctance of "today's youth" to learn from mistakes -- ours as well as theirs, to heed wise instruction, and to turn from their impulsions and compulsions in order to create for themselves a better life, and create for those around and after them a better world. One word has appeared over and over in our discussions: entitled. "Why does this generation think they are so entitled?" And we shake our heads and crinkle our brows at the arrogance of these children, our children, our future. "They weren't raised that way."

In studying the story of The Advent this year, I was struck by the humility of this very young couple, Joseph and Mary as they arrived in Bethlehem after a long and arduous journey, and searched for a place in which to simply rest, at a time when they were awaiting more anxiously than anyone, the birth of the long-anticipated Messiah, the King of all kings, their very Savior, a baby.

This year our family welcomed two babes -- a granddaughter in July, and a grandson in November; both mothers and newborns received the most skilled and sanitary care available. While we are all aware babies are born everyday in some of the most rustic and difficult situations, the thought of a child being delivered in a manure-infused stable amidst farm animals, with a few old blankets or hastily shredded cloths upon which to lay either mother or babe, and only the light of a few reeds or clay jars to guide the way -- well, let's just say, knowing what my truck looks and smells like after one thirty-minute trip to the vet with two dogs, and in today's super-sanitized, bleachy wiped, brighter is better world, I can't quite get my head around it. Who wouldn't expect better conditions from the God of the Universe for the arrival of His Son into the world? When the inn keeper said there were no clean, comfortable sheets on which to lay this child God had entrusted to them, did these young parents say, "Oh, no, we have to keep looking then. Surely God would not want His Son delivered amidst bovine snot rockets and sheep urine." Why didn't Joseph demand better for his dear Mary and the child that had caused him so much distress, and at the same time, so much joy? Did Mary, possibly in the midst of contractions snarl, "Do you not know who I am -- who this is?"

And hours later, after Jesus had nursed and fallen asleep in Mary's arms, when "honored" guests arrived to see their Redeemer. Shepherds. They may very well have smelled worse than Joseph and Mary's animal companions! And so much noise and commotion. "I just got him to sleep!" From what we're told, Mary seems to be the quiet, reflective type, not some attention-seeking drama queen. A "house" full of guests -- complete strangers -- shortly after such an emotional and intimate event was probably not what she envisioned or maybe even desired. Did Mary close her eyes and whisper, "Really, Lord?"

And weeks later, upon entering the temple with the minimal sacrifice for Mary's purification -- the minimal sacrifice -- didn't Joseph question why God would allow His Only Begotten Son to grow up in abject poverty? Had Joseph missed something? Was there something he, as Jesus step-father should be doing? "Father, why would you give this child to me? And why would we, earthly guardians of the Most High King, continue to live as the poorest of the poor?" Did Joseph shake his fist and cry out to God, "I am so tired of living hand to mouth; I would have at least thought You'd want better for Your Son!"?

Entitlement. From what the Scriptures tell us, entitlement was not what these young newlyweds felt. They were honored. They were humbled. They pondered, and learned, and grew in their own walk with The Savior. They were servants and instruments. They obeyed and sought to serve their Lord of lords in all they did, and spoke, and thought. You'd think if anyone deserved to feel entitled, it would have been these two. Selected, called, tested, persecuted, grieved, over and over again.

Feelings of entitlement seem to be part and parcel of the human condition. If you've ever been disappointed with your raise, if you've ever purchased something you couldn't afford, or if you've ever been annoyed by the success of others, chances are you have felt in some way entitled. Entitlement is not just a condition of youth -- today's youth or otherwise. Entitlement does not just infect those who take advantage of others or pride themselves on being better than the rest in some way. Entitlement has spent a little time with each one of us. The question is I suppose, this Advent will you allow the humility that is found on your knees, alongside a feeding trough, gazing at a helpless but Holy Babe to replace that entitlement? He is Lord over you, He is Lord over all -- will you live in that way?