A number of years ago while part of a work camp in Durham, North Carolina, I was assigned to work with a group of young people on the house of an elderly African-American woman. Before even meeting her, I was informed that she was a cancer survivor who had adopted her two granddaughters. I decided that I was not going to get to close to this woman. I was going to be there for the young people and minister to them. That, I had decided, was my purpose that week.
“I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
I have sung the Gaither-penned Easter hymn Because He Lives countless times. About fourteen years ago, the hymn became deeply personal. It took on a whole new meaning when my father died on Easter Sunday, April 2001. It changed the way I understood Easter and the resurrection.
When I was in high school, through the combined experiences of youth group, being on the Ashland District Youth Council, and participating in a summer work-camp called Richmond Metro Workcamp, I began to experience a call to ministry. I don’t remember sharing it with others. But it did reach a point where they shared it with me. It all became very real when the pastor of the small United Methodist Church where I grew up asked if I had ever thought about going into the ministry. As I finished high school, I was much more comfortable with the idea that God was calling me to ministry.
But, doubt would creep in. I would go to community college and get an Associates Degree in Early Childhood Development. I envisioned myself getting a teaching degree and teaching in a school. After getting that degree, I got a full-time job at a United Methodist church working with their weekday children’s ministry. During that time, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer and in about eight months would claim the promise of the resurrection. Those eight months would send me into a whirlwind of thinking and rethinking my vocational call. The reality of death and loss hit much harder than Bambi losing his mother ever did.
This whirlwind sent me through many days and hours pondering in an empty church or walking alone on a nature trail. I was asking myself questions like, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life? What is my purpose?”
My father claimed the promise of the resurrection on Easter Sunday, April 2001. Before he passed, two things happened. I applied to Randolph-Macon College, the college I had wanted to attend since I was six, and I applied for a new job as the Youth Director at another United Methodist church. A week before my father passed, I was hired as the Youth Director. When I told Dad, he replied, “That’s good, Son. That’s what you’ve always wanted to do.” (Two months later, I was accepted at Randolph-Macon.)
In June of my first summer as a Youth Director, I took a small group of youth to Durham, North Carolina for a youth work-camp. The work crew that I was assigned to worked on the home of an elderly African-American woman who had adopted two teenage girls and was battling cancer. I had resolved, subconsciously, not to get attached. I did not want to experience the grief and pain that I had just experienced through the loss of my father.
During lunch on that first day, the youth on the crew had invited the home owner to eat with us and join us for our devotion time. The youth had decided that we would eat lunch in her bedroom because she was unable to move freely on her own. I was the last one to enter the room, and when I did, the home owner announced, “There’s the minister!” I was quick to correct her that I was a not a minister, and she was quick to correct me that I was. “When you walked passed me this morning,” she said, “I felt the Holy Spirit move through you.” Not sure how to respond, I politely said, “Thank you,” and sat with the youth for lunch and our devotion.
When I was growing up, it was rare that doors were locked. I can remember as a kid roaming around and randomly going into my grandparents’ home next door. No knocking, and certainly no ringing of a doorbell. We would just walk in. But now that I think about, we haven’t asked my grandparents how they felt about any of us randomly walking in their house.
Then, at some point, the world changed. And doors were locked. It was strange. In order to go into someone’s house, we had to use the doorbell.
It was a little creepy at first. You didn’t know what was going to happen. The doorbell was a strange object. “We’re just suppose to push it?” we wondered. “That’s all?” We would push the button and wait to hear if anything happened. In some cases, the “bell” would be so loud it would freak us out a little bit. Others we wouldn’t be able to hear it ourselves, which meant we had to push the button again, right? Because if we couldn’t hear it, how could the people inside hear it?
It also seemed so formal. Like we had to wear our Sunday best to visit someone. We were not formal people. We were country, where everyone knew everyone. Honestly, though, everyone was related to everyone – which is a whole other blog post.
Doors were no longer open. Being invited in was no longer taken for granted. We had to ask to be invited in.
When the doorbell rings, we have been trained to go to the door. We may peek through the window first to see who is out there. Maybe we are expecting guests or a delivery, and we wait with anticipation for the doorbell to ring. The power of who comes in is on us, we who are inside the house. If it is a salesperson, we do not have to let them in. If it is some annoying grandchildren, we do not have to let them in.
When I lived in an apartment in the West End of Richmond, a group of Mormons from Central America were making the rounds in the apartment building. I knew when my doorbell rang that it was this group of people. I knew what they were selling, and decided that I needed to bury my head into my textbooks instead. I figured after they rang the bell and no one came to the door, they would move on to the next door.
However, the bell kept ringing. After awhile I finally got up from the table where I was studying, and answered the door. The elder member began chatting me up in a quick pace of Spanish that I did not understand. I finally realized that they had the wrong apartment. They were looking for my neighbor, who was a relative they were looking for.
About the same time that Dad got sick with prostate cancer, I brought home a black lab. Dad named her Lady. She had been left on the side of the road near the church I worked at at the time. She was malnourished, to the say the least. And as a result, she spent the first few months inside the house.
As we got better, she would spend most of her days outside. At some point Lady learned that if she jumped up and pushed the doorbell, one of us would come and answer the door. And I don’t mean a neat little trick where she uses her nose to push the bell. No, she would jump up and lean on the door. Once “standing,” she would use her paw to ring the bell. It looked a little bit like this:
And because we had been trained to response to the doorbell, we would always check to see who it was. Imagine our surprise the first time we realized it was not a person, but the dog!
Lady was not surprised. And once we started answering when she rang, she would continue this habit. Especially when she sensed a storm coming. Lady was deathly afraid of storms. On these evenings, she would ring the doorbell at the front door, and if no one came soon enough, she would run and ring the bell on the back door. This would continue for awhile until my Mom would wait patiently for her at one of the doors to let her in.
One evening while Dad was in the hospital, I was home with my two younger brothers. Lady had gone outside. Not long afterwards, the doorbell started ringing. I – the older brother – told my brothers, “Don’t answer the door. It’s just Lady, and she needs to learn to stop doing that.”
The doorbell did not stop ringing.
Finally I got up, annoyed with the lab, to let her in. Only, there was no black lab waiting at the back door. Instead, it was one of our neighbors bringing us a casserole. I was only slightly embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I thought you were the dog.”
Last month I participated in No-Shave November in memory of my father who passed from prostate cancer. I wrote about it in my post, Why I Am Not Shaving.
There was a small thought floating in my head that I might end up looking like this guy a the end of the month:
This is what I really looked like:
This was Thanksgiving Day with my PaPa (my dad’s dad) a prostate cancer survivor. When my aunt saw me on Thanksgiving, she told me that I looked just like Dad when he first started trying to grow a beard. You can’t really tell from the picture above, but there are bald spots on either side of my face. Having gone a month without shaving, I still could not grow a complete bread.
I’m not a fan of shaving. But I have to do it. My mother kept hinting when I was in the eighth grade that I might want to start shaving. I guess I didn’t get the hint, because that Easter, settled in the fake, green grass of the Easter basket, was a razor and a can of shaving cream.
Shaving would irritate my skin. I was allergic to certain shaving creams . . . or to shaving in general, I’m not sure.
I recently received a new razor, the MicroTouch One.* The razor has been coined “the modern version of the timeless classic.” The razor is made of solid brass and chrome plated. It comes with a travel case and clear instructions on how to use it. It also came with a set of razor blades.
So, on the first of December, I was ready to shave. The One razor has a “butterfly” opening that allows you to easily insert a clean razor blade, as well as to keep the blade clean of shaving cream and whiskers.
I used my shaving brush and a round bar of shaving soap. The soap sits in its cup. With the wet brush, the soap turns into a lather. You can get the lather as thick as you want by the degree of wetness on your brush.
The One razor, with its one blade, has been perhaps the best shave. Much better than a disposal razor, and much better than the razors that claim to have multiple blades. Some of said that it is just as good as a barber shop shave.
Because it is solid brass and chrome plated, it is a little heavier than the disposal or multi-blade razors. Which means the razor takes some time to get used to. But once you do, it’s all good.
The cost for the razor, case, and 12 blades is $19.99. Some have seen the razors on late night tv infomercials and big-box stores.
I’ll keep shaving and leave the beards to these guys:
*In full disclosure, while I did receive the razor free, I was not compensated for writing this blog post.
It is rare that I don’t think about my father. When we sing a certain song in church, I remember singing it with him. When a song comes on the radio or iPod shuffle, I remember sitting the wooden pew listening to him sing that song in church. When the car makes a funny sound, I think about in what seemed like no time at all, he would be able to identify the sound. When I watch the CBS Evening News, I remember how that was a part of his evening ritual when coming home from work.
And I miss him.
I miss that he would always be there. I miss that he always seemed to have a fix, no matter the problem. I miss how he deeply listened to people, hearing them to speech. I miss how helping and serving others was important to him.
There is a glimmer of a memory watching my dad shave. The sink full of warm water, the shaving cream spread across his face, and razor in hand. A skill I would need to master. My parents gave me shaving cream and razors for Easter one year while I was in middle school. Shaving would become a ritual for me just it had for my dad.
But not this month.
This month I have not been shaving. No razor or shaving cream has touched my face. I have decided not to shave in observance of No Shave November. According the No Shave November website, this is “a unique way to raise cancer awareness.” The monies donated support the American Cancer Society. But a quick Google search will show that there are other organizations that encourage men to participate in some form of No Shave November to raise funds and awareness for their causes.
I have decided to do in memory of my father, Bruce C. Stanley. Dad had prostate cancer and died from it April 15, 2001. Easter Sunday. That previous September Dad had started experiencing unbearable back pain. It was treated for a pinched nerve. After a month of the pain continuing, Dad went to get a second opinion and that is when he learned that he actually had prostate cancer.
Prostate cancer is one of the leading diseases in men. It is the second cause of cancer death in men, only to lung cancer. According to cancer.org, the American Cancer Society estimated that in 2013 about 238,590 men will be newly diagnosed with the disease and that the disease will be the cause of death for about 29,720 men. Roughly about 1 in 36 men will die from prostate cancer.
Dad just happened to be one of the 1s.
Dad always had facial hair. For the longest time, it was full fledge beard.
But, not always. When he and Mom got married in 1975, he had a simple, conservative mustache.
After I was born, he sported his awesomeness, circa 1979-1980.
As the ’80s continued, the mustache became the beard.
Over time, it returned to a simple mustache. The switch came after much debate in our house as to whether Dad should shave his beard or not. I don’t remember what the deciding factor was, but it was a compromise to keep the mustache. And he held on to the mustache for as long as he could.
In the first few months after learning he had prostate cancer, there wasn’t too much change. But eventually, Dad would have to limit himself to the amount of physical labor he could do. The pain was just too great. While we worked in the yard, he would sit on the back deck watching, and wishing he could be out there with us.
As the cancer got stronger, Dad got weaker. He would eventually not have the strength to support himself to get up or to sit down. Family members would come by and, in a day, build a wheelchair ramp on the front of the house. Dad would be wheeled out in a wheelchair on the new ramp, lifted up out the car, and sat into the car.
To see my father – the essence of manhood – so weak and unable to do “manly” things, was heartbreaking. He was the one who worked on all kinds of automobiles. He was the one who chopped wood so we had firewood for the winter. He was the one who built a doghouse for our dog. He was Dad.
He was the one who carried us when we were not able to make it on our own. Yet, here he was in a hospital bed barely able to raise himself up. The more the cancer grew, and the more medicine ravaged through his body, the less hair he had. Including the facial hair that was a part of his identity as much as it was a part of his face.
The loosing of hair marked the lost of strength.
And so, I’m not shaving to remember, to honor, to raise awareness, and most of all, to be strong for all the times my father wasn’t able to be.
For more information about No Shave November, visit their website here, and consider making a donation to the American Cancer Society.
A sermon preached Sunday, December 16, 2013 at Peakland United Methodist Church. Scriptures were: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18.
The wilderness. It was the place where the Hebrews wandered for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. It was the place where Jesus would go and be tempted for forty days before officially starting his ministry. And it was the place where John the Baptist lived and preached.
The wilderness is dangerous and inhospitable. It is barren, rough, and rocky. It is a place that is unstructured and chaotic. The wilderness is a place of fear. We have been in the wilderness this weekend. We were forced into the reality that the world is not safe and is unpredictable. We have roamed in fear, grief, and horror after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school.
Sometime Friday, a clergy person I know posted on his facebook, “WHY!?!?!” We have probably all asked the same question at some point. Why did this happen? Why does this keep happening? Will we be safe?
But if we let the words of John echo through our wilderness, we may find the next steps. John calls for repentance and change. He calls for the people of God to bear good fruit. It is not enough, he tells them, to claim your heritage to Abraham, you must act like who you say you are. To us we hear it is not enough for you to say that you are a Christian, you must act like who you say you are.
In the midst of the barren and inhospitable, John calls for reprioritizing. In the midst of chaos, John calls the people to focus their lives on God’s love. And we, like the people in the wilderness of John’s day, ask, “What then should we do?”
John’s answer is preschool worthy. What then should we do? We should share. John gives examples of what to do. If you have a lot, and your neighbor has nothing, you should share what you have. It reminds me of the saying, “Live simply, so others may simply live.” But this sharing goes beyond our material things. We who claim the Christ Child as our Lord and Savior are to share the love of God with others. We are to share grace and forgiveness. We are to share our hugs. We are to share our prayers.
In Philippians 4, Paul tells the church, “do not worry.” At a time like this, that seems like a tall order. If anyone knew anything about what it meant to worry, it was Paul. He had churches that were being bombarded with false theologies and pagan ideas. The churches were infested with conflict and confusion. They were looked down upon by the rest of the society. All of this is tough when you are responsible for one church, but Paul had them scattered all around. Oh, and Paul was in prison. Paul knew about worrying.
But Paul goes on to say in Philippians 4, “but handle everything in prayer.” For Paul, the opposite of worry is prayer. Instead of worrying and being anxious, Paul says, pray! Prayer should not be the last resort when we are panic-stricken. Instead, we should be so tight in our relationship with God, that we open ourselves up to God on a daily basis, so that when we are panic-stricken, we are in a place where we naturally hand things over to God. We do no worry, we give it God. Because, at the end of the day, God is in control, not us.
My Dad was an example of this for me. While he was in the hospital sick with prostate cancer, the meds were leaving him in such disarray that he did not always realize where he was. So, we took turns staying overnight at the hospital with him. On the night I stayed, I was a young 20, Dad thankfully was alert to his surroundings. During our conversation that evening, he lifted his hands as high as he could and said, “It’s in God’s hands now.”
It would be easy to say that my Dad was giving up, and to be honest, that’s what I feared was happening. But the reality was that he was opening himself up to God in such a way that it was natural and easy for him to say, “It’s in God’s hands. I’m not in control. God is in control.”
This experience was a wilderness one for me. It was a time full of fear and uncertainty. It was a time of sorrow, and a time of hopelessness. It was difficult to see my Dad, whom I had never seen sick during my childhood, in a hospital bed, barely able to lift up his own hands.
Every year during Advent we come to the wilderness to hear John’s story and his message of repentance and change. It is a message of transformation and renewal. There is no getting to Bethlehem and the sweet, little, baby born in the manger without first going through the wilderness.
There is a Native American proverb that goes like this. A grandfather told his grandson about two wolves who were constantly battling inside his heart. One wolf was greed, hatred, and fear. The other was love, peace, and kindness. “Which will win?” asked the grandson. The grandfather replied, “The one I feed.” When we open ourselves up to God and live in this tight relationship, we are feeding the wolf of love, peace and kindness.
Paul goes on to say, in Philippians 4, to rejoice! That too seems like a tall order in moments like these. We can rejoice, however, because the Lord is near. One Bible translates as “God lives among you.” This is a word of comfort, no doubt. In the midst of our grieving, God is with us. In the midst of our sorrow, God is with us. In the midst of loss and tragedy, God is with us. In the midst of healing, God is with us. These are all causes for rejoicing. Because God is with us, we discover joy.
This is perhaps why the words from the prophet Zephaniah are so profound. The Israelites of this generation were surrounded by destruction and exile. They had failed to listen to God; they had strayed; they had not trusted God. They were need of renewal and change.
What Zephaniah pronounces is that the crises we face are best addressed in community. Change and transformation, healing and renewal happen best in community. Nurturing our relationship with God as well as with others is essential to the Christian faith. We need each other. The Christian faith is not a solo, rather a choral arrangement. And at the center of this community is the God who comforts.
Despite the conditions and challenges we face, the pain and disappointment, God is a God who comforts, consoles, and nurtures. God is a God who hears the cries of God’s children. God has not abandoned God’s people.
The events on Friday showed us that in a moment everything changes. In a moment 15 first-graders were taken from us.
In a moment a teacher, protecting her students, lost her life. In a moment the lives of ten individuals in Chicago ended.
In a moment, a father loses his job and a family struggles. In a moment, an accident leaves a mother in a wheelchair.
In a moment a light begins to shine. In a moment we discover joy.
And it only took a moment for a baby boy to be born. A baby boy who will change everything.
Go from this place and share. Share the love and grace of God. Share your prayers. Share a hug.
When I was in middle school, a friend of my Dad’s brought a collie to our house. He had found her on the side of the road, hit by a car. He took her to the vet. He couldn’t keep her because of the apartment he lived in, so he brought her to us. He had named her Penny. Penny looked just like the famous collie, Lassie, just a lighter shade of brown.
Over the years, Penny would be there to see us get on the school bus each morning and to welcome us home each day.
My senior year, our marching band trip was to Walt Disney World. My Dad was going as one of the chaperones and we were leaving the house to go to the school. It was that part of the day when evening was coming on. The sun was slowly slipping away and the moon was slowly rising to takes its place. Penny was nowhere to be seen. I remember thinking that this was odd. She was always around. She always there to greet us or to see us off. But on this evening, she wasn’t.
Something deep within me knew that something wasn’t right.
I called her name, “Penny! Penny!” Nothing. No bark. No collie feet running through the woods. Nothing. The strange feeling I had that something was wrong wouldn’t leave me.
I called again. Still nothing. My Dad was urging me to get into the truck. We were going to be late. It would be ok, he said, she’ll find her way back. I kept calling. Then, I heard something. I asked my Dad, “Did you hear that?” He said he didn’t. I called Penny’s name again, and the sound of faint bark could be heard. Soft, quiet. Something was indeed wrong.
I took off running, despite the cries of my Dad telling me to wait or to get a flashlight. Back behind our house was a huge creek that would run into the Pamunkey River. There was a trail from our house to the creek and another trail that would lead to my grandparents’ home next door. I ran, stopping every so often to call Penny’s name again, listen for her bark, and then run in that direction.
I ran down the path, jumping over dead logs. I crossed the creek using the old oak that had fallen in just the right place to serve as a bridge. I struggled to get up the steep hill using weeds and branches to pull myself up it.
I reached the top and there was this old abandoned house. No one had lived here for years. Windows were broken. Doors were missing. It looked like something out of a horror film. As I ran around to the front of the house, I stopped to see Penny standing on the roof of the porch.
Without a moment of hesitation, I ran into the dark house, up the stairs, and found the room whose missing window, Penny had walked through. I called her to me, and she came back into the house and together we ran out of the house, down the hill, across the old oak bridge, and up the path back to my house. Somewhere in the midst of this running back, we bumped into my Dad would was coming after me with a flashlight. But, we didn’t stop, we both kept running until we made it home.
April 15, 2001. Easter Sunday. For the most part, it was like any other Easter Sunday. Except for one thing. One week prior, my father went into hospice care. Dad was, instead of sitting in a pew, he was limited to his hospital bed at home. Our world, for six months, was turned upside down when it was discovered that Dad had prostate cancer. And despite the amount of chemo or radiation he received, the cancer kept returning and each time more aggressive than before.
I remember sitting in the choir loft at church barely able to sing songs like “Up from the Grave He Arose” and “Because He Lives” without getting a lump in my throat. It was all too surreal. The music, the words, the prayers were all focused (rightly so) on the Resurrection.
I wanted to get home after church as soon as I could. I was so worried that he would be gone. But, thankfully, he was not. It would be a long day of Dad going in and out of consciousness. At times he would recognize where he was and who was around, at other times he wouldn’t. It would be sometime in the 7pm to 8pm time frame he began to slip away. He was talking with my PaPa, his father. It was quiet and painless. That evening, Easter Sunday 2001, Dad passed away. He entered into resurrection.
My father lost his battle with prostate cancer.
Today is World Cancer Day. A day designed to raise awareness, educate, and lobby for change. A day to stand up to a disease that takes away close to 7 billion people. Will you join me in lifting your voice and prayers to do something?
In Suzanne Collins’ book The Hunger Games characters Katniss and Peeta are District 12’s Tributes in the Games. (For those you haven’t read the book (A) you need to and (B) I promise to keep the spoilers to a minimum.)
The rules have changed and now they can work together as a team to win the games. In one moment sitting in the wilderness of the arena, the two teenagers begin to discuss life back in District 12.
As they recall memories, Katniss remembers her father. A man whose life and death was by the coal mines. A man, who when he sang, “even the birds stop to listen.” Singing not only reminds Katniss of her father, but also how much she misses having him around. Singing was something he taught her how to do and something she recalled while in the wilderness of the arena. Since his death, she has had to grow up and become the leader, supplier, and caretaker of her family. In in the midst of these added responsibilities, Katniss had stopped singing. She reflects:
It strikes me that my own reluctance to sing, my own dismissal of music might not really be that I think it’s a waste of time. It might be because it reminds me too much of my father.
A few weeks ago in worship we sang the hymn, “In the Garden.” I had to stop singing it. It was one of those moments where if there was a rock for me to crawl under, I would. But, there was no rock. It reminded me of Dad. As his grave side service concluded, the bell tower at the cemetery began to “sing” this hymn.
Music was a central piece to my father’s faith. He sang in a group at our church called the Gospel 7 since its beginnings. Still to this day there are certain songs that he sang with this group that when I hear them I pause for a moment because it reminds me of him.
For the longest time I would avoid those songs because the memories were so painful. For example I couldn’t hear “Go, Rest High on that Mountain,” a song originally recorded by Vince Gill that Dad sang in church often, without missing him to the point of being in physical pain. But now, I add songs like “Go, Rest High on that Mountain” to my iPod so that when the music shuffles through to that song and others like it, I remember.
I remember his powerful witness through song. I remember riding in his old Chevy truck listening to cassette tapes of the songs he was learning to sing. I remember sitting in wooden pews listening to him sing during church. And now, instead of bringing pain, the memories bring me comfort and peace.
In a way, with these songs and memories, Dad is always with me.