From the Daily Office Lectionary for Monday in the week of Proper 12, Year 1 (Pentecost 9, 2015)
Psalm 56:4 ~ In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust and will not be afraid, for what can flesh do to me?
“Flesh” is sometimes used in Holy Scripture as a synonym for other human beings; in fact, this verse is repeated later in the psalm, but with this word changed to “mortals” (v. 10) making the psalmist’s intent clear. But as I read it this morning, I thought of the ways flesh, our own flesh, can betray us.
A few days ago, my wife and I watched a movie entitled The Widowmaker. It was about heart attacks and contrasted the ways in which interventionalist cardiologists (who rely on surgery and use of stents) and medical cardiologists (who rely on medication and change in lifestyle) treat heart disease. It was also an indictment of the fee-for-service, profit-motive practice of medicine. In a sense, it was about what “flesh” in both senses can do to us.
In any event, the movie was a reminder of one way our own flesh, our own bodies can betray us. Another is cancer. A little more than twenty-two years my older brother died of a cancer called “glioblastoma.” A kind of primary-site brain cancer, it truly is a disease in which the flesh betrays the spirit, and it is invariably fatal. When Rick was diagnosed, I did some research and found that, at that time, 50% of patients died within six months of diagnosis; the other 50% all died within two years. Those statistics may have changed a little as new treatments have been developed, but (so far as I know) the long-term outlook for glioblastoma patients hasn’t improved much.
Rick’s first symptom was misdiagnosed as a stroke in October 1992; he was correctly diagnosed a few months later in February 1993, and part of his brain was surgically removed. He died four months later. We lived far apart, so I didn’t see him often during those months, but I did visit at least once a month. I watched a man who had been a brilliant constitutional lawyer, a college professor, and the vice-president of a major university become someone who couldn’t carry on a conversation, couldn’t remember the colors of the spectrum, couldn’t recall his children’s name, couldn’t walk but only shuffle with a cane and the assistance of others. His brain, his flesh, had betrayed him.
I wish I could say that his faith did not, that he trusted in God to the end, but I can’t. At one time, my brother was an active member of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. He even considered entering the ordained ministry in that tradition. However, that phase of his life did not last long and by the time of his death he had long ceased any outwardly noticeable religious practice or affiliation. I believe that he maintained a quiet and deeply personal faith ~ he celebrated my own ordinations, kept religious icons in his office, and could quote Scripture with the best of ’em ~ but he too much a secular intellectual, too much a political cynic to be public with it. So if he trusted God, he kept that trust to himself.
But his mother and his brother trusted for him. We committed him to God in our prayers and, though he was not cured of his cancer (no one is), we trusted God to receive him into the eternal habitations ” where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” (BCP 1979, pg 499) I believe we shall meet again and the glioblastoma will be nothing more than a footnote.
Today would have been my brother’s 72nd birthday.