Recently Pastor Jeff Giles, WTS, 1994, visited the Wartburg Seminary campus and shared his time, presence and ministry with us. He shared his story both informally and formally in his presentation, “Finding God in a Chemo Drip.”
As background, Pastor Jeff was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML) seven years ago along with an underlying disease, Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS).The MDS can sometimes be treated for years before it converts to the more deadly AML; however Pastor Jeff’s converted prior to his initial diagnosis and has relapsed once since then. Pastor Jeff is considered terminally ill.
Being terminally ill altered Pastor Jeff’s ministry in many ways that have been and continue to surprise him and others, and yet he, and his wife, Jennae, continue to share their journey and their faith – continue to minister. They persist in their ministries.
Pastor Jeff ministered to us by simply sharing his journey and his faith. He shared his faith speaking through God’s word, beginning not surprisingly through the 23rd Psalm. He went on to interpret, “No matter what happens in our life, in our joys and in our sorrows on the mountain tops and deep down in the darkest of valleys, our God is with us to help us, and through us, to help others as well.”
As Pastor Jeff made space for the common question, “Why me?” the Psalm 22 was quoted:
1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
The question of “why me?” and of questioning God in anger and despair was familiar to me as it relates to my own personal journey and my daughter’s death. Thankfully the journey towards, “why not me?” is also familiar. Pastor Jeff articulated this journey in a beautiful, faithful way that I hope to embody in my own life and ministry as he lifted up the normalcy of asking why alongside the progress of lament psalms, such as psalm 22. He affirmed that during a cancer diagnosis one grieves many things and this questioning is a healthy part of that grief and of our faith life. One of the things grieved is the loss of a future, and this loss connects to those touched by cancer as well as many other tragedies. In my experience I’ve found this to be a nearly universal part of the grief journey no matter what the details of the loss are.
Then Pastor Jeff asked, “What if we were to turn this ‘why me?’ question around and ask a different question – ‘why not me?’” Clearly, nobody deserves a cancer diagnosis or any other “why me” tragedies, and yet bad things happen. In our grief journey there comes a turning point just as there is a turning point in lament psalms. Pastor Jeff reminds us that lament Psalms such as Psalm 22 are helpful as we move from lament to praise. While assuring us to not be afraid of the “why me’s,” Pastor Jeff also cautioned us to not get stuck there. He shared that moving toward and to the “why not me’s” is “where you will find peace and joy even in the midst of a horrible disease, having been comforted in that darkest valley by the shepherd’s rod and staff.”
During our time together Pastor Jeff’s prophetic voice was also able to authentically give voice to the fullness of his journey. He discussed avoiding platitudes or “greeting- card theology” and lifted up listening and responding to where each person is at in their journey and to accompany others as God accompanies us, “holding everyone, walking with them through the shadows, even the shadows of death.”
I was once told that while not everyone receives a cure, there can always be healing. I embraced that and yet struggled to articulate and live into in my ministry. Pastor Jeff shared his belief on healing as he encouraged us toward a broader understanding of healing, “To see that healing is more than physical. . . . it can also be mental, and it can also be spiritual. . . . God’s healing will give us the strength we need to face the day even when we are physically, mentally, and spiritually broken. . . .We can feel the healing presence of God in each and every day. . .” The encouragement was both personalized to Jeff’s journey with cancer and broadened to include the journeys of all humanity struggling with death and grief. He said, “We might think, how is it possible to go down into that dark valley of the shadow once again? Yet, God’s healing presence is there by our side, having gone ahead of us to meet us where we are, and to accompany us on the journey, comforted by our Shepherd’s rod and staff.”
Rather than common one-liners and platitudes Pastor Jeff encourages us to direct hard questions of grief and theology boldly, and he continued to do so during our time with us, and he also continues to do so as he shares his own journey as well as ministry through his online journal at http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/pastorjeff.
In closing Pastor Jeff shared a poem (see link below) with those of us gathered to hear and learn together. Jennae, Jeff’s wife, wrote the poem for him in the spring of 2000 to use in the funeral sermon of a teenage girl who had taken her own life. The poem fits a broader context as we seek to wrap our minds around all of the terrible thing that happen in life.