I am lying in the darkness in my hospital room about 2 a.m. and all the nursing stations are quiet at that time and it’s just me and my breathing and my fear about losing the function of my right leg to the cancer that has spread to my lower spine. And Robin. She is sleeping in a foldout chair the hospital provided for her, as well as she can. She is staying that first night in the hospital with me. As I lie there, in the darkness, staring at the ceiling, the thought comes to me that my pain has taken me from my life and brought me to a place where people come at the end of their lives, to die. The pain has brought me out of my life and carried me to my death. And I lie there with that thought for awhile and then the thought changes. Same hospital, same pain, but the thought that I am thinking now is, my pain brought me to a house of healing. The pain came to me to help me confront this new threat. The pain brought me here for healing.
Robin and I were in California when that moment came, staying with Robin’s cousin, Peggy in San Luis Obispo for a few days before heading up the coast toward the Bay Area. We planned to visit our old home town of Brentwood, attend the service at our former church, see as many of our friends and relations as we could during our time there.
But while we were still at Peggy’s, the pain and weakness that had been encompassing my right hip and thigh, the pain and weakness that I had been ignoring for three or four months, grew worse. I could not sit or stand or walk or lie down without pain. I could not sleep. Robin took me to the emergency room at the community hospital there in San Luis Obispo. The doctors did a scan and told me that I had cancer in my spine and in their opinion I should go home and deal with that. I called the oncologist at the VA hospital in Connecticut who has been treating me since 2013. She said, “I need to see you.”
We flew back to Boston into the biggest snow storm of the year. We laid over at home during the storm and I had an appointment at the hospital in West Haven the following day, a Thursday. On the morning that we were going to go to the hospital for my appointment I went out early to do an errand and wrecked the car. Our daughter took us to the hospital later that day. When we got there, the doctors were waiting. They had confirmed the diagnosis of the doctors in California and they were arranging for me to undergo radiation therapy. On the following Monday morning I began radiation therapy and I went in every day for five days. And on Friday I came home to a period of recuperation and medical reevaluation of my continuing care.
When I came home something had changed for me. I was floating on clouds of good feeling and the prayers and wishes for my healing that had come my way. I felt blessed and just filled up with this overflow of blessings in my life. My body was still weak but I was filled up with this sense of possibility and promise. I no longer believed that I was pretty much done for, that life was over for me except for a lingering downward spiral into death. I felt strongly that a purpose awaited me and that’s what I want to talk about with you now.
Last November, when Robin and I were beginning to talk about our California trip, I had a dream. Now, there are dreams and there are dreams. Much of our dreaming, we know from scientific research on sleep and dreaming, consists of mental housekeeping. The subconscious is sweeping out old stuff, cleansing our memories and getting ready for the new day. But there is another kind of dream, what I think of as a teaching dream. It courses directly from the Spirit through the subconscious to the conscious mind for our learning and instruction.
The dream I had in November, I’m convinced, was teaching dream. Pastor Wanda came to the house for a visit in early December and she and Robin and I talked about that dream and Pastor had some very helpful comments.
And so the dream went like this. I am one of twelve participants in a Jewish ceremony, a litany of ancient origin. It’s a combination of a religious observance and a re-enactment. The dream takes place in a large modern auditorium filled with perhaps a thousand people sitting in the seats facing the front. And we twelve participants are standing in a line facing the seated congregation. We are dressed identically in black robes with white shawls draped about our necks and shoulders. Robin is one of the twelve. She is my mentor and close friend and in this dream she is a man. But she’s still Robin to me so I will refer to her as she. I have an idea that she got me into this because I’m feeling uncertain about what is to happen. Of the twelve participants, I am number twelve, standing on the right side of the line. Robin is next to me, number eleven.
To begin the ceremony the first participant at the far left of the line steps out and proceeds down the line. He walks past me and stops at a black stone altar with a polished black stone stop. The altar is bare. The man takes out a piece of paper and reads a section of ancient liturgy. Then he returns to his place and the next participant steps out and proceeds to the altar and reads a continuation. And so on, until Robin takes her turn and then I. She hands me her paper and says, here, this is your reading. So I step to the altar and read, with increasing confidence.
The same procedure happens again, only this time, each participant reads a prayer — for healing, for sustenance, for help in times of trial, giving thanks and supplications to God. As the last of the twelve, I read my prayer and return to my place
A rabbi enters the room.He is dressed in a long robe, with a shawl draped over his head. He is carrying a large white bowl filled with crystal clear water. He walks carefully, so as not to spill any of the water. He places the bowl on the altar, turns and wordlessly departs. The first of the twelve participants walks down to the altar, turns to face the congregation, pulls up his sleeves and dips his hands in the water three times. Then he shakes his hands three times, folds his hands together and returns to his place. Each participant in turn does this. Robin takes her turn, washing her hands ritually in the water. Then it’s my turn. I step to the altar, I pull back my sleeves, I place my hands over the bowl. And I — cannot put my hands in the water.
Suddenly I am paralyzed with fear. This — this ritual has special meaning and I don’t know what it is. I have no preparation, no training to participate in this way. I’m not even Jewish. What am I doing here? I am not worthy. I am unclean.
My hands are over the bowl. I cannot move. Everyone is watching. And — at this point, the dream ends.
So, here’s the question. What does this dream mean to my life? What does it tell me about myself and my path of discipleship? What can I make of the meaning of my failure in the dream to engage with an ancient rite of spiritual renewal? And what does this have to do with the cancer that is now attacking the nerves in my spine?
Pastor Wanda came over to the house in early December for a visit and Robin and I and Pastor talked about that dream. And she had some insightful things to say about it. She said the dream reminded her of a story from the Bible. We read it this morning, Peter refuses to let Jesus wash his feet, because Jesus is the Master and greater than he. Peter completely misreads what Jesus is trying to do for his disciples. He’s preparing them to carry on after he leaves them. After the trauma of his arrest, conviction, torture, execution. After the rush of joy and triumph that must have accompanied the disciples’ first sight of Jesus alive, walking and talking among them, loving them, sharing insights from beyond the grave. After they got over thinking he was a ghost, that is.
So, Jesus says to Peter, perhaps gently, perhaps with a sigh of dismay, perhaps with a touch of impatience, “Peter, if I do not wash your feet then you have no part of me.,” So Peter, Mr. Overboard, says, “Well, all right, Lord, if you must wash my feet then wash the rest of me, too!”
And Jesus replies, “Peter, you’ve had your bath. You don’t need to be washed all over. What I am doing for you now you must do for each other after I am gone from you in the body.
Jesus is teaching them the model for Christian servanthood and the true meaning of leadership through greatness. It truly turns the world’s view of what constitutes leadership upside down. The world sees a leader as someone who wields power and authority at the apex of a hierarchy. But to Jesus, the true leader is the servant, the one who leads by example, by serving the needs of others and making their lives better in some way.
Robin and I took our Methodist district’s lay servant course last fall, so we are both certified lay servants to this church. There are others here who have taken the course and are certified by the Conference to lead through service to their local church and to other churches as well. Sandy. Jeanne Kosakowski. And there are others in this congregation that just do what they do with a sense of Christian discipleship, without waiting for the Conference to hand them a certificate. But the designation of the servant leader is an important one. It represents a shift from the old style of hierarchical leadership. But it is not new. The servant leader idea has roots in the Christian faith that go back to the very beginning. You heard it this morning from the mouth of the Savior.
And so the realization that comes to me from my recent hospitalization and my ongoing treatment for cancer keeps leading me back to the dream. The deepest dimension of this dream tells me that I am not ready yet for this next stage of my life. I have work to do and I am not prepared. My hands are suspended over the water. I cannot put my hands in the water. I am paralyzed with fear. And yet I must do something. But I cannot move. I am not ready for this moment of truth, this moment of commitment. And yet I realize that my illness represents a call. My pain and physical weakness are drawing me not into death but back into life.
The last time Robin and I spoke with my doctor, she gave me a bit of a shock. When we told her that we were planning to go back to California to live in about six months, she said, “If you’re going back to California, do it sooner rather than later. I don’t know how well you’ll be feeling in six months.”
So there it is. If my goal is to beat this cancer, to regain my physical health and vigor, to continue my life as before, that’s a battle I cannot win. I will lose. Whether I have six months or a year or two years before the cancer strikes me again, I must say now that my goal is not restoration of my health. My goal is to dip my hands in the water, to regain something I had lost, to give up my attachments to many of the things that have occupied my attention throughout my life, to idle pursuits and entertainments that took up my time, preoccupied me and kept me from recognizing and engaging in moments of true meaning and purpose, from living in the now of the holy stream flowing from the very rock of our faith that God knows us and loves us and provides purposes and avenues to enable us to live fully in the body and blood and unfathomable love of Christ for all humankind.
I must say that my goal now is to be present, to become an active servant leader in ways that are open to me. To dip my hands in the water, complete the holy ritual, and return to my place refreshed and ready to serve.
These thoughts, words, prayers, needs, I offer to you in the name of the risen Christ, who comes to us now through the Holy Spirit, Immanuel, God With Us, every day of our lives.