Cindy Gregorson on faith and life

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Giving Up Forever

I turned 60 this month. My father died at age 56 from kidney cancer. I always said I wanted to make it through my 50’s. I have. Barely. 59 was a very rugged year. That same kidney cancer came and visited me. But here I am at 60. My mother is still going strong at 82. I have a grandfather that lived to 95 and a grandmother that lived to 99. The genes for old age are also in my family. But whatever way you cut it, the reality is I am in the last third of my life.

Up until the last year, I had been one of the lucky ones. Sure, I had a few medical scares when the test results came back, and you thought, oh no, what is that? But more testing, and then discovering it was nothing. I was fine. No broken bones. No chronic diseases other than having to take a daily pill for my thyroid. I rarely took an ibuprofen or an antacid. The worst I dealt with was a once or twice a year bad cold that sometimes turned into a sinus infection and some mild seasonal allergies. I exercise, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and don’t smoke. All a recipe for a long life to be sure. I read all those articles about aging well, and I have been doing those things for the past 10 years! My expectation was to live to 95, active, strong and healthy.

Yesterday I went to the doctor. It was my 5th doctor visit since the beginning of January. Sigh. My ENT doctor basically said I have to learn to live with the tinnitus that I hear in my head 24/7. My thyroid medicine is still off and so one more adjustment and probably that is what is causing the heart palpitations (for which I underwent a stressecho test and am wearing a heart monitor…but luckily the heart seems to be just fine) and then yesterday, my kidney function was down, the lowest it has been post-surgery, after it had improved 6 weeks ago. And my blood pressure, well, still erratic. Everybody keeps telling me you only need one kidney to live, but that one kidney has to work well for that to be true!

So here is the thing: everything about this is changing my image of myself as strong and healthy, and gets me wondering what kind of old age am I going to have. I always knew I did not have forever. But turning 60 and dealing with these health challenges heightens that sense of knowing my future is limited. And what I am most struggling with is that I do not want to sign up for a life of medical management. But all that is out of my control. I cannot will my kidney to perk up. There are things I can do to avoid damaging my kidney. But there is not much I can do to improve its functioning. That will or will not happen on its own. My doctor says if it stays stable as this level of moderately diminished functioning, I can live fine. So I wait for 6 weeks and the next round of blood tests to see which way it will go.

That is my life these days. Living in 6 week intervals to the next blood draw. And from 6 month scans to the next 6 months scans to see if the cancer has returned. That makes mortality a whole lot more present when every 6 weeks and 6 months you are looking for signs of it! So my daily practice is seeking to stay in the land of the living. I know this sounds dramatic, but it works for me: I will say to myself, well, you are not dying today, so how do you want to live? I can spend all my time worrying about the what if’s, or I can focus on the what is true right now. Right now, I am here. Right now, I have the strength and capacity to do everything I want to do. So do it now. I cannot live fully when I am always waiting for that other shoe to drop or for everything to somehow be resolved before I get on with life, which is where I have been.

So I am flipping my mindset. I am letting go thinking about forever. Instead of seeing that 6 week and 6 month interval as a time of anxiety waiting for what life might hold, I am embracing the gift of living in these shorter time frames. I am teaching myself not to think about the tests ahead, but rather the life I want to live in these 6 weeks, and how can I best live it fully, so that whatever comes in the next 6 weeks or 6 months or 6 years, I have no regrets. For a planner who wants to have everything in her life figured out, this is a new adventure. But that is one of my invitations for this year: to explore new paths! So here we go.

Cindy, what are you doing with the next 6 weeks of your one wild and precious life?  I am going to  Hawaii!  It is one of the bucket list places I want to visit and thanks to the generosity of my brother and sister-in-law, I get to go next week.   And  once there I have every intention of leaving behind doctors and tests until the next 6 week blood draw, and celebrating that I made it to 60 and here’s hoping for thirty more!  But whatever life brings, I will remind myself as a I bask in the warm weather and sunshine,  I am still alive today, so stay in the land of the living.

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It’s a Mental Game

I wish it were a straight line to healing. I think it should be. In the days after surgery I was focused on just dealing with the physical pain, and healing the incisions. It kept me occupied. Six weeks out, the body is mostly healed from the surgery. People tell me I look good and am moving well. I started back to work part time. And yet, I find myself in a funk more often than not.

I tend to be a worrier. I have been praying the serenity prayer for many years now: to have the courage to accept the things I cannot change is really the one I get stuck on! I still have things going on in my body that I don’t know why. Things are not normal…or at least my normal before last fall. And I want to know why, and after seeing multiple doctors, I still don’t have answers. So some days, I say to myself, well, you are alive today, so just live your life and ignore all the background noise of your body. Other days I keep wondering what it will take to feel my “normal” self again, and surely all this is something and I just need to figure out what it is so it can be fixed. And then, there is the spot from the surgery where I still get sore 6 weeks out, and I think did I do some real damage to it when I overdid it at the 3 week mark and is that going to mean another surgery down the road? So every twinge has the inner critic in me kicking myself for something that happened in the past and can’t change even if I wanted to.

I get why I am in a funk. Before the surgery, I was hanging on to hope that somehow all the weird stuff going on in my body, the pulsatile tinnitus, the bloating, the constipation, the blood pressure was stress and anxiety and somehow connected to the kidney and once they removed the kidney it would all resolve. But it has not. I feel like I am in the same place I was in mid-September when I started this journey to figure out what was going on in my body and I am back to square one and now with one less kidney plus a future of being on the cancer-return watch. I am frustrated and I am grieving. I want back the person I was last spring when all my health markers and vital signs were good, and I had no worries about what was going on in my body.

I also know that I am anxious about being strong enough to return to my normal routines. Can I really lift more than 10 lbs now and not do damage? Will that one weak spot hold? Will I have the stamina to work full time? Can I really keep to a more reasonable work schedule given the demands of my job and my own overachiever tendencies? Will my heart be in it given everything that has been happening in my life?

I have been reading Deanna Thompson’s book Glimpsing Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma and Ministry. She talks about being “undone by cancer.” That is how I feel. I have been “undone” and even though I am stitched back together, I am emotionally living in a different land where I don’t know how to navigate the territory yet. I know my journey has not been as difficult as others. I have been blessed to not have to face months of treatment. I have a good prognosis. But then I start feeling guilty for even being in a funk when I think about how lucky I am. But, deep down, what I know is my journey is my journey, and it is not a straight line to healing.

They say time heals. I do believe that. I have a feeling the longer I live within my new reality and see that I will be OK, I will move out of this funk and back to my more joyful self. We are resilient creatures and I will adapt. Like much of life, this really is a mental game. Practicing self-compassion which has never been my strong suit (I am an Enneagram 1 for those who know what that means) and not over-thinking things are new for me. I am learning. Step One: notice your suffering. Step Two: speak kindly to yourself. Step Three: See things as they really are.

So here we go: I am in a funk. It is OK. You have been through a lot and your body is still talking back to you and you don’t know what it means. But just because your body is not perfect, does not mean is cannot be trusted. It may be different than what it was, and that will take time to learn and adjust to. Be patient. Do what you can do. Do one thing that makes you happy today. That is enough. The days will add up and before you know it this funk will have faded. Healing may not happen in a straight line, but it is happening.

I.Have.Cancer

I.Have.Cancer. Those three words keep bouncing around in my head. Yes. They removed the kidney with the tumor. Yes. The tumor was completely contained within the kidney. No evidence of spreading elsewhere in my body. But still, I have cancer. The surgical pathological report confirms it. Renal cell carcinoma, clear cell type, WHO/ISUP grade 2, pT1bNO. All those words and numbers means cancer. Everyone tells me how lucky I am. That we found it at all. That we got it early. That it was contained. That you can live just fine with one kidney. All that is true, and I am so grateful for how quickly we were able to move once the cancer was identified. Two weeks from ultrasound to surgery. But still. I have cancer and my life will never be the same.

So what I am wondering these days is how does one live in a way that cancer does not loom larger than any other part of my life. I may have cancer, but I also have health. I breathe. I walk. I sleep. I read. I laugh. I have life. I have family. I have my mind and spirit. There is much that I have. So what do I let define my life? At the same time, I cannot and do not want to deny that I have cancer. Are there things I can do to help my body be as healthy as possible and for the cancer not to return? I have been reading a lot on that one. Diet is major it seems. Nutrients and herbal supplements. Meditation and exercise. Supportive people in your life. Tending to cancer could be a full time job! My favorite idea I have come across is trusting your intuition. We know what is right for our body and soul. What that means for me right now: sleep. I go to bed when I am tired and wake up when I am ready. I take naps. Walks. There is something about moving your body, and breathing deeply while you do it. It is harder to do it outside in the winter, but in nature is better. I guess I need to buy some snow pants. Eating simply and what tastes good. I am not being rigid yet about the whole no sugar thing, but I am listening to my body and seeking to eat what is says it is hungry for. Fruits and vegetables mostly, and a little of the other stuff. Less and less chemicals. Although club crackers are pretty soothing to the stomach right now! And being patient with myself. I have a lot to process. Three weeks ago, my life did not have the words cancer attached. I was thinking about what retirement might look like and how I wanted to live the last third of my life, but not really pondering mortality.

I had spent the last ten years getting healthy. I lost 60 pounds. I became an active exerciser. I reversed my pre-diabetes. I was doing everything I thought I was supposed to be doing so I could live a long and healthy life. And still I got cancer. I have been a pastor too long and seen too much, not to know bad things happen and there is no rhyme or reason. None of us are exempt. But I am just a bit miffed. I do all the right things, and others eat like there is no tomorrow and never get off the couch, and I am the one with cancer. But I can’t go there. Getting angry, being sorry for myself, feeling like a victim, that is letting cancer take over my life.

What I want more than anything is to learn to trust my body again. That this body that has carried me for the past 59 years, is the same body that will support me into the future. That I don’t obsess over every little, pain or incident wondering if that cancer returning or my body betraying me. And believe me that is easy to do when you have weird things going in your body like tinnitus 24/7 for weeks on end now. But I also need to remember that the person who the week before her diagnosis was on a treadmill and running is the same person I am today. And she is still strong and capable and yes, healthy.

The morning of my surgery, I named the tumor. I called her Bessie. My dad always called our car, Bessie. C’mon Bessie he would say when the car was struggling to climb a hill. I thanked my kidney that worked long and hard for 59 years to keep me healthy. I said I was sorry it was going to have to be sacrificed but Bessie was keeping it from doing what it needed to do. And then I named my remaining kidney. I called it Angel. My mom said I have angels watching over me. It seemed an appropriate name and reminder to me. My Angel kidney needs to do the work for two, and I need to do my best to take care of her so she can do her job. Lots of water. Must drink more water. We are in this together.

I have cancer. And I have life. Both are true. We are in this together.

The Lifesaving Gift of Your Pit Crew People

October 24th, 2018. It will not be a day I ever forget. That was the day I heard that word “cancer” in relation to my life. For the curious minds, it is a 5cm, probable renal cell carcinoma in my left kidney, and I am scheduled to have surgery next week to remove the kidney. So what do you do when you find out you have cancer? Well, if you are me, you start reading and researching. One of the things I came across is the idea that cancer is a gift. What?? This is not a gift I would have ever asked for, and certainly hearing the news that day did not feel like a gift, although it was an answer, and I am grateful that it looks like we caught it early. However, what I have discovered, there are gifts that the cancer has revealed and the biggest one, to quote Anne Lamott, is the lifesaving gift of your pit crew people!

One of my biggest worries being a single person was aging all alone, and what would happen if I got sick? Who would take care of me? Would I be a burden? Would people get tired of me? I have always been a strong, resourceful, independent person. I have never liked asking for help, feeling like I was imposing on people. I have a strong sense of it is all up to me because no one else is going to do it for you. And somewhere, deep in my childhood, I got this totally bent message that people only like you because of what you do for them: because you are good, smart and responsible. I was never pretty, popular, particularly athletic and therefore never felt like I was a “chosen” one. Funny how that skews your view of the world and your sense of your place in it.

In the last two weeks, I have discovered how many people I have in my life who care about me, are rooting for me, and will show up for me. I start with my family. My mom, at 81 years old and going strong, is still being my mom. She has taken me to the ER, to doctors appointments and sat in waiting rooms while I have had tests. She has worried and prayed and listened to me. She has been my rock. I tell her that I am supposed to be taking care of her at this stage of life, but there she is, still taking care of me. Then there are the friends who you know are friends in that you socialize and open up about your life, but in these moments, you discover they are really there for you. The ones who come and take you to lunch so you don’t go crazy in the midst of the waiting. The ones who send you the daily texts with prayers. The ones who bring you chocolate, and text you late at night to make sure you are ok. The ones who say we will be there at the hospital. And we will be there when you come home. You are not going through this alone. I am crying even as I write those words!! It has been amazing to discover, and I think I have not been near enough a good friend in return. But that is the beautiful thing about this. It is not about me earning or deserving their love. They just do it because they love me. Wow!

And the caregivers who have been unfailing kind as I have endured test after test. Let’s talk about being over an hour in a MRI machine, shall we? And then there are the prayers. Social media certainly has its downsides, but Facebook is a gift right now. To be able to post your darkest fears or your best good news, and to see all the people in your friend network who are praying with you and cheering you on. It helps you keep going. The prayers of the faith community, the warmth of a prayer shawl while you are waiting to get the news of your tests from your doctor, the wishes of love, positive thoughts and energy, they all matter. My mom asked me early on if I was comfortable with people knowing I had cancer. I said, “heck, yes!” This is no time to be strong and independent. I will take all the prayers and support I can get. It makes a difference and I want every resource at my disposal to go through this surgery well and be cancer-free on the other side! So here is a nugget worth remembering from the book “Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds”. When we are surrounded by loved ones or even our pets, the feeling of being loved releases a flood of potent hormones into our bloodstreams, which not only makes us feel better emotionally but also strengthens our immune system significantly. Receiving love from others when we are sick actually helps the body heal itself. Wow. That is researched data, not just wishful thinking.

I never asked for or wanted cancer. But I do have to say thank you. Because what it has taught me is that I have an incredible gift of people in my life and they are indeed my lifesaving pit crew. I will be relying on them and God to love me back to full health. And I will never underestimate again the value of sending that card, making that call, or just offering a prayer and a Facebook comment. You are all my cancer posse and I am so grateful!

Goodbye Portland…Hello Minneapolis

I am at the airport as I write this.  I will not be there for day 10 of General Conference but I do want to offer some reflections as I prepare to leave and head home.

1) I loved Portland.  Their mass transit is great…it was frequent, easy to navigate and got you most any place you wanted to go.  It is a walkable city.   I got over 10,000 steps everyday which is a good thing because the food was pretty amazing as well.  I ate my fair share of desserts, donuts and ice cream!  People were so friendly.  I am glad I had the chance to visit what is fast becoming a mecca for young adults which is causing some consternation among the locals because housing prices are shooting up, homelessness is on the rise and the city has growing pains…so they have their own challenges, but overall a very livable city.

2) Minnesota was well represented here…from the strong, steady leadership of Bishop Ough as the President of the Council, to an engaged, informed delegation who took their responsibilities very seriously.  We had people leading through offering interpretation services, serving as marshal and recorder, chairing committees, on the Judicial Council, being host team volunteers, speaking in videos,  working the political processes, reporting the news and being commissioned and consecrated as missionaries and deaconesses.  You can be proud of the people you sent here.  They showcased who we are in Minnesota.  Passionate, caring , thoughtful leaders.  We may be a small conference, but we are making an impact!

3) We continue to deepen our relationships across the Episcopal Area.  Our commununications team consisted of Doreen and Dave from the Dakotas and Christa from Minnesota.  They were phenomenonal and putting out some of the best stuff that I saw during my time here.  They embodied collaboration and team work…and what a work ethic….they put in some very long hours to bring you fresh and interesting coverage from a DAK/MN perpsective.  It happened that the Dakotas and Minnesota delegation were seated at the same tables, so friendships grew (and dancing if you saw my Facebook pic) and we held a joint area dinner.  It is great to have partners in ministry!

4) Our host team is off to a great start.  Jim and Carol Haun got here before it all began and are staying through the weekend to see it all wrap up.  Gail Johnson and Kent Peterson and Sheilah Kyburz worked multiple shifts as volunteers and took copious notes of what worked and what we need to figure out and how to make it even better.  The word on the street from the General Confernece staff is that they have never seen a future host team that was there to learn to dive in so completely and made themselves so available to work and help.  They are excited to come to Minneapolis and work with us.  We will need 1200 volunteers to be great hosts (Portland set the bar high!) so put May 5-15, 2020 on your calendar and come help us demonstrate Minnnesota and Dakotas hospitality and our desire to create a sanctuary where the whole church can come together to be the church and pay attention to God’s leading.

5) Yesterday, as we ended, we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Full Rights of Clergy Women.  That historic action occurred the last time General Conference was held in Minnapolis.  1956.  It took 20 years for women to be seated as delegates to General Conference.  That occurred in 1976 in Portland.  Breakthrough moments.  So no coincidence I think that we had a breakthrough moment here in Portland again this year when the church agreed to talk, really talk about how we might find a way forward as a diverse, world-wide church, and we empowered our bishops, our spiritual leaders, to lead us as a church on this matter.  I fully expect something as radical and significant to happen in Minneapolis in 2020.  We are not just a flyover zone!  The Spirit is moving here and we will be ready to welcome all the people called United Methodist in 2020 for another historic gathering, and in the meantime we will continue our ministry of offering Christ in all ways to all people, showing the world what it means to be a people of open hearts, engaged minds and dismantled doors (to quote Bishop Yambasu.)

Thank you for giving me the privilege to bear witness to the events of this week and to offer you my insights and perspeective.  It was a great learning experience.  Yesterday, the two rows behind my seat during the morning worship were filled with Global Mission Fellows…all young people, all wearing t-shirts proclaiming Generation Transformation.  Becuase of them, and the many others I met like them here in Portland, I leave with hope!  God is clearly calling new leaders for a new time, and I am so blessed to be a part of the new thing God is doing.

The Hard Work of Diversity

This is my third General Conference.  It has been the most international in its worship, it’s makeup, and in its functioning. One sign of our diversity is that there has been simultaneous translation for all participants, so not presuming English is the primary language.  We have all been using our headsets to listen to one another.  Our music and scripture readings have been in multiple languages.  It is a beautiful church.  

Today we blessed and commissioned 29 missionaries that will be deployed all over the world to offer Christ.  We heard about the work we are doing to address global AIDS, ending malaria and starting new churches in places like Germany.  This is what I love about being United Methodist..that in fact we are a world-wide church, and I can be a part of changing and saving lives of people I will never meet and places I will never go, yet I am there because I am part of a global movement.

And yet, these past 10 days have also highlighted the challenges that diversity bring.  I was talking to one person from another part of the world, and he was asking how the US understands the issues before us.  I shared my perspective, and then asked him what he thought the US ought to do.  And he said with all humility that he believes it should be left to the US to determine that since he did not have enough understanding of our context to make an informed decision.  I know I felt that very same way when some delegates from Africa were speaking about a situation in their home conference, and I was glad I was not in a position to vote on the issue since I was clueless about the dynamics he was raising.  

We bring 864 delegates from around the world together for 10 days who name themselves as United Methodist, and presume that means we have enough shared identity and shared purpose that we can just show up and do good work together.   We underestimate the shaping power of culture, and how much we see and act through our worldview.  Many have reported that the fault line in the United Methodist Church is around human sexuality.  If we were only a US church, then I would say that might be true.   I think the deeper challenge is will we be a world wide church in more than name only.  It is easy to say we will when it does not cost us much or fundamentally change our practice.  But right now, the structure and polity of the United Methodist Chuch is clearly predicated on a US culture and context.  That is not surprising since it was birthed as an Amercian movement.  And we have been with all good intention trying to accommodate our increasingly international context, but that is the key word, accommodate.  We have not fundamentally changed how we live and work in light of this new reality, and it is time.  

43% of the delegates came from outside the US this year.  Since it is proportional, that shows the growth of the UMC beyond the US so what I have observed at General Conference this year is a creaking and moaning of an antiquated US political process that is not responsive to our global reality.  Our fault line is whether we are willing and committed to do the hard work of becoming a truly diverse church, and that means going back and examining all of our operating assumptions and ask if they are serving us well in this new time, and what would be a better way.  It is always easier to keep doing what you know, to hang with people who are like you, or thinking because we are nice and polite, we are truly welcoming.  I dare say it will be uncomfortable and even more, for some whose power is rooted in the way things are now, threatening, to truly embrace becoming a world wide church.  But I hope that does not stop us or we give up trying to live in into this possibility God has placed before us when it becomes too hard, because we have a great opportunity to be a witness to our global world that people from different places, histories and cultures can come together and be one in heart, and ministry, even as we are unique and beautiful in our diversity.  John Wesley, who proclaimed the world is my parish, would ask no less of us as the people called Methodist.

Telling Our Story Before Taking a Stand

Today’s Inward/Outward devotional offers this quote from Thomas Ogletree in Hospitality to the Stranger:

To offer hospitality to a stranger is to welcome something new, unfamiliar and unknown into our life-world…Strangers have stories to tell which we have never heard before, stories which can redirect our seeing and stimulate our imaginations.  The stories invite us to view the world from a novel perspective.

The Council of Bishops just brought a response to the General Conference about a way forward.  They have asked the body to engage in a season of prayer.  To defer any legislation at this General Conference around human sexuality.  To authorize them to form a commission that would be representative of the whole church to take a holistic approach to the Book of Discipline around how we become a world wide church and be an inclusive church and that when the work is completed to bring it back a special session of General inference in 2018 or 2019.  And then, they asked before we enter into debate, we spend time at our tables, telling our story before we start taking a stand.

I applaud the Council of Bishops in this action.  I know some are looking for the immediate solution.  What is the answer now, and let’s vote it up or down.  But what I love about this proposal is that bishops are inviting us to be the church! So here comes my rant about the “business” of the church.  Whenever I work with a local church, one of my challenges is that the leadership team should be spending way more time in prayer, bible study, community building and discerning the leading of God, and a lot less time in reports, action items and the minutiae of running the church.  The push back I get is we don’t have time because we have so much “business” to do, and my reply is always that the business of the church is to listen to the heart of God and then to go and do what we discern is the leading of God.  We need to spend as much time as we need on that business otherwise everything else is just our good idea and may or may not be rooted in the heart of God.  And surprisingly, when we take the time we need to listen to God, it makes the other decisions and actions we need to talk so much more clear.

So what if God is the stranger in our midst?  One who is holy other than us, and longs to bring something new, unfamiliar and unknown in our world.  How will we listen and open ourselves to that voice and story?  The Council of Bishops is inviting us to a season of listening to God and one another, to tell our story, to listen to new stories, and perhaps that will stimulate our imagination and find a novel perspective that will allow us to move forward.  I think that indeed is the business of the church.  The most sacred task before us is to be the church God calls us to be, and how we live and work together is the mark of what kind of church we will be.  

So , of course, because this is General Conference, a legislative body, we are now debating through the labyrinth called Robert’s Rules of Order whether we will accept this invitation to be the church.  I remember a story about Moses and the burning bush, and God remarked how unusual it was that Moses stopped because most walk by.  Seriously, people don’t notice burning bushes?  How is that possible…you just don’t see that everyday, do you? For me today, we have a burning bush moment offered to us through our Council of Bishops.  What will it take for us to stop and let God…the I am who I am, the I will be who I will be, speak into our life and world?