Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Diagnosed with kidney cancer

I have been reflecting on what has happened to me within the last three months. When I graduated from Boston University School of Theology on 16 May 2010 with Master of Divinity, I was awarded with cum laude. I started my internship as a chaplain on 1 June 2010 at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of U.S. top five hospitals. I was about to proceed on to a second master theological degree program at Boston College, the largest Catholic academic theological institution in U.S., with a substantial tuition scholarship on 7 Sep 2010. I thought I was right on track to be an academic theological scholar. All these changed radically on 26 Jul 2010, when my general physician told me that I had been diagnosed with a kidney cancer. Further testing revealed the size and spread of my tumour and confirmed my cancer to be in stage four. I went through emotional rollercoaster with my wife and my immediate family members in those few weeks. Suddenly, life was not as orderly as I would like it to be. I am no longer in control of my own life (as if I was really in control at all even before the diagnosis). Now, I cannot imagine how future is like and I am living in the great unknown. If the surgery or the chemotherapy is not a success, my lifespan will be severely curtailed. However, even if the surgery is successful, and my chemotherapy shrunk all detectable tumours, I will be living in the shadow of recurrent cancer from now on. I no longer have the courage to venture overseas again for theological education. It is too great a risk to take for a cancerous person (or should I use the word "patient"?) like me. Will there be any church who would want me as their minister? I simply do not have an answer. Now, I am learning to give thanks when I woke up each day, grateful to be still alive, grateful to be in the presence of my immediate family members. I am learning to relay totally on God and God's community once again. I am not in control, God is.

I used to be in parish ministry teaching adult Sunday school, preaching in the pulpit or facilitating Bible study in the last fifteen months before I returned back to Singapore. I used to be a chaplain intern providing pastoral care for my patients for about ten weeks during my CPE. Suddenly, the rug was pulled out from under my feet. I am struggling to stand up again, trying to discover my new identity and my new role. I have become the receiving end of pastoral care while still being sensitive to the needs of others. If I can still call my reaching out to others a ministry, it will be a mutual ministry to each other. Just three weeks ago after I came back from Boston, I was waiting for my bus at Jurong Point bus interchange, I witnessed an Indian lady rebuking two foreign workers who blocked her way in the queue. She scolded them saying "Hello! How can others go in when you are blocking the way?" The two workers moved obediently to join the gap in the queue, and the lady continued "Use your common sense lah! Other people also want to queue up, right?" I stood there laughing to myself as I was put in touch with the familiar Singlish and Singaporeans' mannerism once again, and I knew distinctly that this is my home. If God has intervened in my theological education in such a way and is calling me back to ministry in Singapore indirectly, this is the group of people whom God would be calling me to minister to. Yes, ministering to my fellow Singaporeans. As to how and in what way, I do not yet know at this moment, but in the process of crafting this message, I could see how I am trying to minister in a different way. How?

When I heard our Prime Minister's National Day Rally Speech on 29 Aug 2010, his speech consists of measures to boost the economy and productivity, to control property prices, to streamline the education system further; justifies the needs for foreign talents and foreign workers, ways to control influx of foreign workers. In his showcase of Singaporeans' productivity, SembCorp and Keppel are highlighted as the two companies who provided solutions to the BP's oil spill in the Mexican Gulf. This is a phenomenal achievement coming from a small island-state like S'pore, and I do feel proud to be a Singaporean. The rally speech also celebrates the success of hosting the first Youth Olympic Game in spite of spending three times the budget. The decrease of birthrate was briefly mentioned. In short, this is a message celebrating S'pore achievements and inspiring hopes for the future of S'pore. The speech has been carefully crafted, and similarly, in the parish context, I do often hear messages and read carefully crafted newsletters and bulletins celebrating a ministry's success or someone's achievements, and inspiration to continue trusting in God and to point out evidences of God's blessing in the church. This mentality is similarly replicated in individual's setting (This seems to emulate Confucius' model of cascading virtues from the rulers down to the commoners). I have heard a lot of praises and thanksgiving to God because one has been promoted, or one's child has entered an elite stream or school, or one has been blessed materially, etc. (I am not saying one ought not to give thanks. It is only right to give thanks to God). One's failing or the ministry's lack of breakthrough is quickly glossed over or totally avoided in conversation, in newsletter or in the pulpit. Being brought up in such culture, I found it hard for me as a chaplain to empathize with my patients initially and I was quick to move beyond my patient's lack of strength and to lacquer layers of superficial assurance such as "Don't worry, you will make it." Some patients may appreciate it, but some will not. When my supervisor at my chaplain internship site observed me one day, she pointed this out to me, and we discussed my behaviour together. I realized how my upbringing conditioned me to actually avoid talking about pain, suffering, failures, and vulnerabilities.

When I reflected biblically, I could easily recall Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane; Jesus' cry on the cross "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me"; Peter's own denial of Jesus; the disciples' failure when Jesus was arrested; Paul's confession of taking part in the killing of Stephen and persecution of other Christians; the disciple John's bad temper; Abraham's cowardice when being confronted by Pharaoh and later by King Abimelech over Sarah; Moses' failure to enter the promised land; Joshua's incompetency in preparing the next generation of leaders; David's adultery, etc. The pain, suffering, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities of biblical figures are endless, and a strong reason why the biblical authors did not omit these out is to show us how God encounters authentic people and works with our pain, suffering, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. In other words, fellowship will be more authentic if we dare to speak of our own foolishness, and to confess our own ignorance. On a deeper level, within a safe and guarded space, if our pain and our vulnerabilities could be shared and contained, one's journey with a fellow sojourner-in-Christ would be even more authentic. However such sharing has to be done within a mature context to ensure one's vulnerabilities will not be abused by others and for further ministry to take place. Our journey in-Christ calls us not only to celebrate our lives together, but to also honour the authenticity of each individual as being made in God's image and to walk together as God's called community on earth.

I could have stopped at the first paragraph asking for prayer support, but I continued on to reveal my own vulnerability in the hope of showing that Christ's body does consist of broken members who gather not only to celebrate our lives together but also to minister to each other through our own brokenness.

May the LORD our God, whose body was broken for us and whose blood was spilled for us, be with you.

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