Life & Health Theology

Contemplating Chemotherapy: Round 4 – Advent, Watching, & Waiting with Chemo

December 1, 2016

Let’s all just be honest: we suck at waiting.

Even worse than being bad at it, most of us (if we’re honest) hate waiting. It’s ironic that our inability to wait shows itself perhaps most surprisingly during the season that has traditionally been set aside for waiting: Advent. I think we see it most clearly and (most insidiously!) in how unwilling people are to wait until after Thanksgiving to play any Christmas music.

Now, I’m partly being sarcastic about that – but I’m also partly very serious. If you are one of those people who starts playing Christmas music long before Thanksgiving is even here, then I don’t care how nice or innocent or “cute” of person you are: you are a horrible human being and have no concern for the welfare of your fellow humans. Shame on you. The only worse people are those who somehow think “Christmas in June/July” is a good idea. Seriously. For the love of all that is good on earth, stop playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving! Help make this world a better place. Do your part. Ok, end of rant…

We can agree to disagree about how important this issue is (as long as you’re OK with being wrong, I’ll explain why further into the post), but it does illustrate my point that we can’t stand waiting. If we like something or want something, we think we need it now. We can’t possibly wait until the end of November, we want to listen to Christmas music now. Isn’t that our instant, microwave society? Order online so you don’t have to wait. Video “on demand.” HBO “now!” It’s almost embarrassing how easy it is to think of examples. I just ordered a physical book on Amazon and right after the transaction was complete the first thing to pop up was a link saying, “Why wait until the book arrives, start reading the first chapter now on Kindle!” (and I even ordered it on Prime, so it will be here in two days – which, I must admit, I do love and find rather convenient so I don’t have to… wait).


What is Advent?

So what does this have to do with Advent and preparing for Christ’s birth? Everything.

You see, unfortunately, we have no idea what Advent really is these days. For our society, Christmas has essentially swallowed up Advent whole and confused the two completely. Historically, Christmas doesn’t even start until December 24th (ha! Try waiting until then to listen to your beloved Christmas music!). The season before that in the church calendar, spanning from the end of November until Christmas Eve, is called Advent. Now, unfortunately as well, there has been a resurgence of “Advent” celebrations in churches these days, but essentially they have dumbed down Advent to “Christmas prep” services. I mean, we can’t do a whole month of sermons about Jesus’ birth, so we have 4 “prep” sermons about the angels, or mary, or the magi, or however creative the pastor wants to get. That is what we think Advent is – it’s the filler before the main show of Jesus’ birth, because we don’t like waiting for Christmas to get here.

And we’re sort of right, but that’s half of the problem – only very “sorta” right. We want to jump straight from the annunciation of Christ to his birth without the gestation period of 9 months. We want to go straight from Good Friday to Easter Sunday without stopping on Saturday to feel the pain and anguish that occurred then. We don’t want to have to wait. Advent means “arrival” or “coming,” but the season is not just about Jesus’ arrival at his first coming. Advent is about waiting. It is about the watching and waiting for the arrival of God – both in the history of Israel as they waited and longed for a Savior, but also (and perhaps more so) about the eager waiting and expectation that Jesus will come again to make all things new. That means it is not just a fond remembrance of the events leading up to Christ’s birth, and it is not just “Christmas prep” – it is about watching and waiting for Christ in such a way that the remembrance of his first coming and the expectation of Israel increases our expectation and longing for him to come again right now.

That also means that we might have to – oh gosh, here’s that word again –  wait to sing our favorite Christmas songs until the appropriate time when we are actually celebrating Jesus’ birth. In fact, there are many songs that we sing at Christmas that are actually Advent songs. One of my favorites is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which is based off of ancient latin prayers used during Advent in the 8th and 9th centuries. Each verse uses a name of Christ taken from Isaiah, a prophet who longed for the coming of the Messiah. The song exemplifies a hopeful, eager, and expectant waiting for God to break into the present that is fitting for the Advent season. (Other good songs are “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “O Come Divine Messiah,” or “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent”). Ok, I know many of y’all Christmas song people aren’t going to be persuaded at all and still listen to Christmas songs in August, so I’ll just stop trying…

Waiting When Waiting is Hard

I think one of our main problems with Advent is that we don’t really understand waiting. We think of waiting sort of like a movie or TV show buffering on Netflix: we understand it’s a requirement to watch the video, but we’d really all be happy if it never happened again. It’s a necessary evil until we’re smart enough to make everything instant in life. I don’t think anyone in the world would miss buffering if it disappeared tomorrow. That’s how we feel about waiting. The less we have, the better. That’s why we have “midnight releases” – so we don’t have to wait until Friday to get what we want. I mean, seriously – didn’t Black “Friday” start Thursday at 6pm this year?!? We can’t even wait until midnight now.

subway-waitingBut waiting gets even more difficult when the waiting is painful. We’re all mad about being made to wait for our order taking forever (AKA: more than 5 minutes) at Taco Bell, but really that waiting isn’t as bad as other forms of waiting. Not having eaten since lunch doesn’t put us in that much pain to make the waiting hard. But take waiting at the hospital when your health or the health of someone you love is in question and all of a sudden things become drastically more difficult. The other thing that makes waiting hard is not knowing the outcome of what you’re waiting on. I remember when I went to the ER before finding out about the tumors in my stomach. One of the most disconcerting things was waiting after all the tests to find out what was going on. I think the most disquieting moments of my life have been when I was sitting in a doctor’s office about to hear the biopsy results from my surgery, or after getting a CT scan at MD Anderson while I waited to hear if the tumor had grown last month. The waiting was made excruciating by my own pain, but more so by me not knowing how things were turning out until the waiting was over.

I’ve found recently that chemo has really challenged my ability to wait. I thought I was a patient person, until I was told that I’d be undergoing 6 rounds of chemo that would take 18 weeks. At first I thought 18 weeks wouldn’t be that bad. Then they changed my rounds to 4 weeks each, instead of 3 weeks – so 18 weeks became 24 weeks. Still, I thought, these first two rounds haven’t been that bad, and I’m still able to live a pretty normal life. Then round 3 hit me a bit harder than I expected. But I was halfway done. Then round 4 hit me much harder than I expected. The first week I literally spent most of my days in bed. I think I clocked around 20+ hours of sleep each day for the first week. Then, on day 7 my scumbag body goes from wanting all of the sleep in the world to not wanting any sleep at all, even though I’m absolutely exhausted. These past few days I’ve only been able to get around 7 hours of sleep at night, and often that’s after taking prescription sleeping medication. I feel so tired that I can’t make it through the day without a 1-2 hour nap in the afternoon, and so far I have yet to be able to accomplish any real sleep during those naps. It feels like my body has forgotten how to charge itself and is perpetually stuck in the red at 20% battery and I can’t ever get up to even half full on my energy. So now the prospect of waiting through two more rounds of this seems like an endless nightmare of limbo and constant exhaustion. I feel like I can’t wait until this is over. Waiting is hard.

Waiting for the Future

I’m starting to realize that most of the reason waiting is hard for me right now is that I’m doing it wrong. Henri Nouwen (in an excellent excerpt on waiting from the Advent devotional I’m working through right now called Watch for the Light) talks about how “our waiting is a way of controlling the future. We want the future to go in a very specific direction, and if this does not happen we are disappointed and can even slip into despair.” That’s exactly how I’ve been waiting. I didn’t expect chemo, but once I had gone through 2 rounds then I sort of had a picture of how the rest would play out. But it hasn’t gone that way, and it’s hard to admit that the future is out of my control and is actually under the control of chemo in many ways. I’ve sort of seen chemo as a waiting period that I just have to “get through.” Chemo is my health buffering, but chemo is like dial-up internet. It’s made the buffering so much more pronounced, which means I have to just sort of sit here and wait sometimes. And I hate it. I just want it to be over with, but I have no choice but to wait.

cam-coloradoNouwen later says that “patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” That is hard when the current situation is chemo and exhaustion. I don’t want to “live in the situation” – I want to “live through this situation” and get on to the rest of my life. But in doing that I am refusing to admit that God is working right now. I am refusing to wait expectantly for him to burst into the present. I’m refusing to be attentive to what God is doing right now. I’m like Mary telling God that I don’t want to be pregnant for 9 months if that is what it takes for Christ to be born in me. I’m telling God that he wasn’t working on Saturday while Jesus was in the grave, and that no days between death and resurrection would have been better than three days. For that matter I’m telling God that he should have just fixed everything right after Adam and Eve ate the tomato in the garden instead of wasting 2,000+ years to show up initially and another 2,000+ years to actually make things new again.

Could God be doing something even now as I wait?

Could God be slowly bringing to birth new wonders that I could never even imagine?

Could God be working even in the midst of death and decay and chemo and waiting rooms to bring new life and resurrection to bear in my own life?

“Impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore want to go elsewhere,” Nouwen says. “The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to live actively in the present and wait there.”

Waiting Together

If waiting is hard, then waiting alone is another thing altogether. That’s why I think Advent is so important. It gives us the opportunity to wait together. It gives us a place to practice waiting with other people that are just as bad at waiting. Every year we have the opportunity for a season of waiting with other people who are like-minded. Each year the difficulties will be different – sometimes joy, sometimes sorrow – but each year we don’t have to wait alone in the church. Advent is an opportunity to encourage each other as we watch and wait for Jesus to come and make all things new. Advent lets us look back in history and see that what Israel waited for – often in pain and sorrow as well as in joy – finally did come. So we can have eager hope and expectation as we watch and wait for Christ to come again. And Advent gives us hope that as we each wait in different circumstances, God is ready to burst into the present if we are attentive and watching for him. Waiting together means that maybe you will see the light that I can’t see in my own life.

So I would love it if you would join me during Advent and wait together with me as we walk through this season. Help me watch for light where all I can see is darkness. I know that many of y’all are already doing that with me from afar, and many are already doing that with me here locally – and it has been such a blessing even in the hard times. But I’m hoping that during this season of Advent we can watch for light together in a very intentional way.

I’m still learning how to wait together  and celebrate Advent properly – so as always, I’d appreciate any suggestions that you may have from your own experience. But here are a couple of resources that I have found helpful to me in my practice of Advent:

Watch for the Lightwatch-for-the-light – This is a daily reader of excerpts from Christian writers that coincide with Advent and Christmas (and Epiphany too). Each excerpt is about 5-10 pages long, but the pages are smaller and the type is pretty big so it isn’t that much reading. I can read it with chemo brain, so it’s the right length. This is where I got the Henri Nouwen quotes from (on November 28th’s entry). I highly recommend this book!

Light Upon Lightlight-upon-light – Essentially, this is a guide to prayer that utilizes poetry and great Christian literature to aid you during Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. It is a literary lectionary, if you will. Each week it gives you a set of Scriptures to read and a selection of poems and excerpts of novels that all correspond to a certain theme for the week. It was great for me because I’ve always wanted to read more poetry, but do not have the slightest idea where to start, and an entire book of poetry scares the daylights out of me. But Light Upon Light gives me 3-5  shorter poems to simply mull over each week, which gives me the ability to really digest what they are saying. It doesn’t go by days like Watch for the Light, but rather by weeks – which is nice because you don’t feel bad if you missed a day.

I have also written two other posts about Advent in past years that you can read here: Jesus Wasted 30 Years: Advent & the Agonizingly Slow God and Grief as Waiting: Musings on Remembering, Death, Time, & Advent.

If you’d like to listen to some good Advent music (not Christmas music, mind you), my friend made this Advent playlist on YouTube that is very fitting during this season.

What other suggestions or resources have y’all found that are helpful?

How can we learn to “wait together” for the light during this Advent season?

More posts from the Contemplating Chemotherapy series:

Round 1:

Round 2:

Round 3:

Round 4:

Round 5:

Round 6:

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  • Reply Jennifer Callaway December 1, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Thank you. Your patience and honesty and courage are inspiring. Praying that you will experience His presence in a whole new way while you wait.

  • Reply Eric December 3, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    tomato… hehe

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