Published by Tim Cockell on Sun, 17 May 2020 15:55

Covid and Cancer  Rev'd Nell Cockell


7 years ago, I found myself in the wilderness, no longer working, and not sure what I would be able to do in the future.  If I had a future.  I had mouth cancer.  It’s a story for another time, but I have been reminded of it recently.  There are strange echoes of that experience that I feel now, not in myself, but in our society, our world.  Some at least are echoes of hope.  

 At diagnosis, through treatment, suddenly all the things that had filled my life were stripped away.  My PhD was put on hold (in the end that was one thing I never picked up again).  I nearly resigned as a chaplain, thinking I would be unable to return to that work.  I couldn’t care for the family in the same way.  For a few weeks, I couldn’t talk at all.  It was a strange experience.  As I recovered, I tried very hard to choose which parts of my life to return to, which parts to leave behind, which parts to change.  I strove for a slower, more peaceful, more focused way of living.  I am still striving, not entirely successfully.  As a country, a church, a world, we are finding ourselves stripped of the things that filled our lives.  For some of us, work.  For many of us, worship together.  For all of us, social interactions.   And it will be telling to see whether we can choose which parts of our lives to build back in on the other side.  Which parts to leave behind.  Which parts to change.  

When I had cancer, for the months that I was off work and in treatment or recovery, there was one biblical story that spoke to me powerfully.  It was the story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32.  It’s a strange story.  Jacob wrestles with a stranger, and neither prevail, even when Jacob’s hip is put out of joint.  ‘Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”’  So Jacob struggles with God all night, is put out of joint by God, but then demands a blessing.   

As I wrestled with God through my cancer and treatment, I did not feel quite bold enough to demand a blessing, but I fully expected one.  I would not let God go.  And there were many blessings for us, large and small.  The obvious ones – the love, and the prayer, that overflowed; the acts of kindness from cards to casseroles; and the new insight into the incredible beauties of life (even wasps, I discovered, are part of creation).  For me, it also brought a closer relationship with God, firmer ground, fresh insights and a new and creative way of engaging with the scriptures.  Through prayer, through love, through the incredible skill of those treating me and those who have developed treatments over the years, through God’s grace, I not only survived but could talk again too (this is also partly down to obstinacy; it turns out to be incredibly hard to shut me up), and I felt renewed.  Our church too felt renewed, strangely.  

Please be clear: I am very aware that not everyone has this experience.  I have been at too many hospital bedsides, wept with too many grieving relatives, to think this.  And I do not in any way think that God has blessed me because I deserve it (only think of Jacob, one among so many undeserving people in the Bible).  Yet I am blessed, and it still surprises me.  

So how does this relate to the crisis our human race finds itself facing?  I don’t have the courage yet to demand blessings, and I know that there is and will be untold human misery through this time.  Too many bedsides where a chaplain or even a relative is not allowed.  Too many isolated people grieving alone, without even the comfort of a hug.  It is terrifying, unbearable to contemplate.  Heartbreaking.  And yet I insist on going forward with open eyes, with an open heart, to look for signs of God’s blessings, even here, even now.  And I will not let God go.  

We can have no idea what society will look like on the far side of this.  We can have no idea what the church will look like.  We will be changed.  Some of that will be for the better, but there will be grief and loss along the way, most of all of course loss of people, those we love, those who inspire us, those who we rub along with, God’s people all.  Loss too of other things, big and small, will gradually become apparent, and each will bring its own grief.  

Two things which are dear to me seem hard to hold on to at the moment.  One is a thing we have talked about as a diocese, at study days and other meetings: hospitality.  How can we be hospitable when we are turning people away from church?  This place of years or centuries of prayer, this place where so many stories are shared, where momentous moments in life are recognised and brought before God.  If we cannot meet in this place, how can we meet with God?  How can we be a church without a church?  This pain is most obvious when we can’t share communion together.  Where is God’s invitation to the banquet now?  

The second loss I feel most acutely now is the ministry of presence.  As chaplains, it is one of the most important things we offer.  For my ministry, this is far more important than hospitality.  I don’t expect people to come to me; I go to them where they are.  It’s an incarnational theology.  And often there doesn’t seem to be much I can do.  I can’t make their pain and their worries go away.  I can’t give them answers, be they medical or theological.  But I can be with them, listen to their story, hold their hand, share their tears (and laughter too).  I can seek to understand more of what it is like to be them.  Yet now, I am being told I can’t do this.  I can’t visit the grieving widow I know so well.  I can’t hug my colleague as her brother dies.  I can’t be there.  What use am I, if I can’t be there?  

Yet there is another aspect of chaplaincy which may be more important to us all at the moment.  As one chaplain put it to me, ‘we just hold the mess’.  We don’t bring answers, but we do voice the questions, and we name the pain, the suffering.  This has something to do with lament.  Lament isn’t easy; it’s something people often shy away from.  ‘There are people far worse off than me’.  ‘We just have to get on with it’.  ‘We mustn’t let it get to us’.  I am sometimes brutal with the people I walk alongside.  I don’t let them shy away; I name their distress.  I lament with them.  It is a beginning, even when we don’t want to begin.  

Now if ever, I cry out to God.  Now, if ever, surely we must give voice to our world’s laments.  The CMS Lent Course for 2020 begins with these words: 

There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried 

Christopher Munizihirwa, Archbishop of Bukavu, 1994-1996

We have much more reflecting to do, much more wrestling, and there will be much more mess to hold.  There will be so many more tears to shed.  But I will not let God go.  

Categories Word from the Clergy