Dear Friends in Christ,
Last Sunday, I was part of two gatherings that, at first glance, seemed totally unrelated. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized they were strikingly and hauntingly similar. At 3:00 p.m. on June 7, Sudbury UMC’s Health Ministries Commission hosted the Rev. Bonnie Draeger, an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church and author of When Cancer Strikes a Friend. On a gorgeous spring afternoon, nearly forty people attended Rev. Draeger’s presentation and received a complimentary copy of her book.
What was powerful enough to compel so many people to sacrifice one of New England’s few sunny Sundays to sit for 90 minutes in Hawes Hall? The answer to that question, of course, is obvious. the specter of cancer haunts our Metrowest communities. Like no other disease I know, cancer strikes and kills children, young adults, middle-agers, and elders. It is vicious, random, and greatly feared. Almost always a cancer diagnosis feels like a death sentence. We barely know what to say when cancer is the main topic. Bonnie Draeger came to Sudbury from her home on Cape Cod to help us learn how to do that. I am grateful for her ministry and so are those who heard her speak.
At 4:20 p.m., I tried to slip quietly out of Hawes Hall to make my way to Dorchester. Early in June, I had learned that our sister church there, Greenwood Memorial UMC, was planning a prayer service for the survivors of loved ones whose lives have been lost to violence. Like you, I have felt helpless each time a news report describes a shooting in Mattapan, Roxbury, or Dorchester. The least I could do, I said to myself, was to join my friends there for prayer. My arrival at 5:30 p.m. prompted a bit of commotion. I knew it would. When a tall man in a clergy collar enters almost any church, an invitation to participate in worship is almost inevitable. That’s why Methodist clergy are fond of saying, “Always be ready to preach, pray, or die!” As soon as I walked through Greenwood’s doors, word got around and a revised order of worship appeared. “Pastor Joel,” I was asked, “would you open and close our service?”
What do you say, ready or not, when the main topic is gun violence and approximately forty loved ones of young men shot to death in recent months and years have come to find comfort and hope in a world that feels unfair and out of control? What I remember saying went something like this: “I have just come from a gathering at Sudbury UMC where the topic was how to talk to loved ones who have cancer. Cancer is random, vicious, and greatly feared. It shortens the lives of children, adults, and seniors. And, as you know better than I, Dorchester has been struck by cancer. Guns and violence are a cancer in our city’s streets. We hardly know how to talk about it. But the least we can do is pray. Let us go to God who hears us in every time of need.”
For two hours I listened to the testimonies, filled with confusion and pain, of mothers and spouses of young men whose lives have been cut short by guns. Like Job’s friends, I sat quietly as friends I cherish wept in God’s presence. We lit candles. We sang. We read scripture. We clung to our faith – though, admittedly, it is tattered and shattered. The questions and cries felt hauntingly similar to those I have heard in the hospital rooms of those dying from cancer: “Why me? Why is God so unfair? What have I done to deserve this? When will God hear my cries?”
When it comes to cancers of any kind – whether literal or figurative – words are inadequate. The best we can do is listen, pray, and promise to stay with each other even in the valley of the shadow of death.
See you in church!