Ocean Breakers

ShipOfFools_web_07292016But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; …
For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
(Isa 43:1-3 ESV)

Ocean Breakers

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I have known fear.

We entered 1993 with my son set for surgery, with me in a new position, and with fear after fear mounting like ocean breakers crashing on the beach. When Maryam was then diagnosed with breast cancer [1], we were being bombarded with highly technical medical information which we had no criteria to evaluate—we were just pulling our hair out.

Shortly after Maryam was diagnosed with breast cancer her mother, Naranj, came from Iran to live with us. The kid’s (Christine, Narsis, and Reza) started calling Naranj, Mama Bozorg (big mother in Parsi), and soon we all did—she was an angel who lived with us off and on for the next ten years. Mama Bozorg often watched the kids while Maryam and I were off on doctor visits.

Throughout this period Maryam was fearful that she would die of cancer, while I questioned the advice we received from the doctors. Breast cancer is insidious—it starts out as a small lump the size of an eraser on the end of a pencil when you have no symptoms whatsoever. Her mammogram showed no lump; her doctor missed it; Maryam found the cancer in a self-exam. So before anything seemed out of the ordinary, my young, beautiful wife was undergoing physical exams by numerous doctors, often in front of me, and disfiguring procedures were under active discussion. It did not bother her; it bothered me. I felt abused and violated—facing similar circumstances, friends of ours divorced. In the end, we were never again be able to have children.

Desperate to understand whether our doctors were giving us good advice, I stumbled on the website of the National Cancer Institutes’ website.[2] On the website, I found a list of recommendations for the standards of care for each type of cancer and every stage of that cancer. This was called the physicians data query (PDQ). The PDQ allowed us to determine that Maryam’s doctors were giving us state of the art advice for her treatment. Consequently, Maryam had a lumpectomy, localized radiation, and a five-year regime of tamoxifen, consistent with the PDQ.

Meanwhile, I was hunkered down in my work just trying to stay employed—no work; no medical plan.

When I wasn’t working, I was working late nights to learn a new programming language, C++, which was all the rage, in part, because it allowed object-oriented program designs to be implemented. Developed by AT&T’s Bell Labs to implement complex telecom systems, C++ programming required a much higher level of abstraction than structured programming languages, like C or FORTRAN (Complien 1992, x).[3] Fearful of losing my job and fascinated with the prospects of C++, it was hard to be fully present at home where we now had three kids in diapers and no back up.

With my parents living in West Lafayette, Indiana and my siblings located in different place, family get togethers for holidays were fun, but not always easy to manage. Maryam and I were the first to have kids at a time when everyone else had not yet taken the plunge. People tried to be flexible, but the effect was like the Brady Bunch breaking into a singles club. For example, at one point my sister, Diane, invited us to Baltimore Harbor to take a day cruise on her new boat. It sounded like great fun to me, but unable to swim and afraid that a child would go overboard, Maryam resisted; she ended up watching the kids in the hotel room while I took the cruise with everyone else. It was awkward; just awkward.

Adding breast cancer treatments to our already awkward situation meant that we were stretched both physically and emotionally. Treatments were stressful and created tremendous uncertainty. I attended important doctor visits, but, often as not, I got kid duty while Maryam went to routine appointments alone because Mama Bozorg was quite elderly. Fortunately, Maryam refused to put up with bureaucratic run-around and insisted on her appointments and was disciplined in taking her medications.

Normally, it is risky for cancer patients to go to appointments alone, because cancer leaves one emotionally impaired and doctors often do not communicate well enough to be understood without serious cross examination. It is accordingly important to have a well-informed, advocate in the room, but at least a spouse. Another reason why an advocate is needed is because appointments were often hard to schedule and medically critical for treatment, especially on the second round with breast cancer. In the years since we went through these two rounds of cancer, I have seen other patients, who were not so assertive in getting their appointments and treatments,  needlessly pass away—cancer patients need advocates.

While we anticipated the medical problems associated with breast cancer and learned that a cancer diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, we did not anticipate social and psychological effects that invariably accompany cancer. Socially, we learned that most people have an emotional threshold below which they are supportive and above which they begin to back away—it was extremely painful to watch close friends and family back away. Psychologically, cancer is often associated with severe depression among all those that are touched. In our case, we learned to deal with the depression by taking evening walks together and by getting out of the house more often—Maryam by returning to work as a teacher and Stephen by returning to leadership in the church.

[1] This pattern of stress followed by diagnosis of a medical problem in the following year has been noted in family system’s theory, especially among families that are very close. Stress compromises the immune system which can over time invite opportunistic diseases, such as cancer, to develop (Friedman 1985, 121-146). It is not unusual, for example, to observe patients in an emergency development in the hospital suffering from a wide range of physical and psychological problems after a death in the immediate family.

[2] www.cancer.gov.

[3] Data structures and functions could be tied together to create objects that mirrored the processes being modeled and facilitated new more secure error-trapping routine to reduce program maintenance. Furthermore, C++ programs also facilitated Windows programming which allowed users to run complex financial models with menus, pick lists, and selection boxes so that no programming knowledge was required. Add to that hypertext help systems and graphics and the results seemed almost magical at a time when most people did not understand spreadsheets and word processing.

References

Coplien, James O. 1992. Advanced C++ Programming Styles and Idioms. Reading: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Friedman, Edwin H. 1985. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: Guilford Press.

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Lift Your Eyes to the Lord

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Faith is a life-saver. One of the deadliest of lies is that we are alone, without hope.  We know from Christ that God loves us and will never leave us. Therefore, setbacks in this life are temporary—an illusion to test our faith.  As Christians, we know that the end of the story is in Christ and He is in control.

The idea of Christian faith has become unfashionable. The postmodern world we live in is often like the Sahara desert where mountains of sand blow about daily. Direction in a world of shifting sand requires a surveyor’s marker that establishes location. Standing on a marker, a map shows both direction and distance. Without the marker, however, a map becomes a puzzle—like words without definitions—whose pieces have meaning only relative to one another. Scripture is our map; our marker is Jesus Christ [1].

When King David wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), he did not just have creation’s beauty in mind. The order of the universe points to the glory and sovereignty of God. Everywhere that scientists have studied, the same laws of physics apply. Why should there only be one set of physical laws?

As David implies, the order and stability of the created universe testifies to God’s existence and sovereignty. Kurt Gödel, a Czech mathematician, who was born in 1906, educated in Vienna, and taught at Princeton University, is famous for his incompleteness theorem published in 1931. This theorem states that stability in any closed, logical system requires that at least one assumption be taken from outside that system [2]. If creation is a closed, logical system (having only one set of physical laws suggests that it is) and exhibits stability, then it too must contain at least one external assumption. God, himself, fulfills that assumption (Smith 2001, 89).

Creation is not the only closed, logical system that we care about.  The human psyche can also become a closed, logical system.  When we experience a tragedy or trauma or just do something stupid, we have a choice.  Do we cry why me? OR do we look to God for help? [3]

If we cry why me and look inward cutting ourselves off from other people and from God, we become a closed, logical system without an assumption taken from outside ourselves.  The result is a logically unstable condition.  I call it: “the pit”.  There is no ladder that reaches outside this pit from inside.  Everything that is valuable to us is in the pit.  The pity party goes on and on without resolution—like a dog chasing its own tail.  Depression not only makes us unhappy, over time our brains physically atrophy enough to show up on a cat-scan.

By contrast, when we cry to God for help, we not only look outside ourselves, we look to the source of stability for all of creation.  But God is more than a helpful abstraction; in Jesus Christ we know that God loves us—individually and collectively—like a loving father.  When we cry to God for help, he extends a hand strong enough to pull us out of the pit.  This is sometime that we cannot do for ourselves.  After all, we dug the pit.

[1] Benner (2002, 26) sees the role of a spiritual director as of pointing to God’s work in a person’s life.

[2] An example can be seen in economics is applied to price theory. The U.S. economy requires one price be set outside the economy (in the world market) to assure stability. In the nineteenth century, that price was gold, and the system was called the gold standard. Every price in the U.S. economy could be expressed in terms of how much gold it was worth. Now, the dollar functions that way.

[3] Jesus faced this same question in the Garden of Gethsemane—“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39 ESV)—offering us an example of a faithful response.

REFERENCES

Benner, David G. 2203. Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.

Smith, Houston. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper.

Also online at:  www.LloydRosen.com

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