Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost by Anne North

Oct. 20, 2019


Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

What to expect when you are expecting the worst : living with metastatic breast cancer

I have been leery most of my life about showers. I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in about 1960 at age 12; my parents were expecting a thriller very like The lady vanishes, and instead got two frightened children who they kept sending to the concession stand but who peeked. So it is probably understandable that it was in the shower where I first discovered my tumor with the size and shape of a Lego brick.

Statistically, I am a likely candidate for breast cancer. My mother had it, the Pacific NorthWest is a hotspot, and the unexpected is regularly sprinkled here and there among us.

Vladimir Putin had just invaded Ukraine at that point in time, February 2014, so naming the tumor Putin was easy. We have comfortably settled into informality; he’s now Vlad to me

Kaiser has a rather impressive army of specialists you see at the start of the adventure. They lay out an array of possible treatments, use jargon like tumor boards and estrogen positive receptors and I highly recommend bringing a scribe with you to any high stress medical encounter. My son and daughter came with me, allowing me to go into a trance, as one does, at the first mention of the word cancer.

There are some dismaying facts and statistics out there. The one in eight rate of women acquiring Breast Cancer isn’t inevitable, but certain sets of the population are genuinely at risk at some point. We can lower the odds of severe outcomes by early diagnosis and body awareness. Many women are the first diagnosed in their families – my mother was one  – but many other women are aware of relatives who have struggled over the years.

My impression is that all varieties of the medical profession are still working to definitely know how and why cancer strikes. We know certain activities heighten the risk of disease. Smoking, heavy drinking, excess weight gain, being a down winder from a nuclear reactor, age, genetics and … ?? Diet?? Lifestyles?? Not to increase your paranoia, but infusion nurses have noticed and told me that they are seeing more and younger patients arriving for chemotherapy treatments.

My Vladimir Putin resurrected in 2016 and added some extra spots scattered across my ribs and other bones. So far, the variety of treatments I have received keeps the fires tamped down and my body reasonably functional. I was surprised that treatments aren’t based on Three strikes and you are out as I had assumed. The attention and publicity over the decades have paid off in a huge array of drugs, treatment plans and the tantalizing prospect of breast cancer along with all the other nasty varieties becoming a chronic disease.

Adding to the mysteries surrounding the disease, there are varying statistics by racial background. Diagnosis and treatment are uneven across the nation. Historically, access to studies and medical care has been unequally available across the population. African American women are statistically later to be diagnosed and more susceptible to resistant forms of cancer that really need early diagnosis. After living in the United States for a period of time, both African women and Latino women are reaching statistics similar to the African American experience.

In the last 9 years, the Portland chapter of the Susan G Komen Foundation has worked through the Worship in Pink program to focus on the African American community and to reach out to remind and encourage all populations of women to take proactive steps toward health. Grace Memorial has sponsored the program here over the past 4 to 5 years.

My experience has been one of having many different medicines infused into my veins, working to tamp down the aggression of my tumors. Side effects vary, some challenging others pretty mild. I may never have a normal head of hair again, but then what better excuse for hat shopping? Nurses know how to get you through treatment crises, they really are the best.  The unexpected, which always happens has been the warmth, kindness and support of family and friends and neighbors. I feel the caring, I feel the sense of being held up by many. Family with whom I agree about nothing, pray for me. I am so blessed.

Some people have commented that I seem to be rather cheerful about my prospects. The reality for me is that when I was first diagnosed several friends were also treated for other forms of the disease – pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancer. Earlier, a friend had esophageal cancer. These are less common and less publicized maladies, and my friends had more difficult, challenging treatments leading to speedy deaths.

I cannot complain. I have lived well and have a good shot at making it to my goal — to vote in the 2020 election. Everyone needs goals!




The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Blessing of the Animals by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 30, 2018


Jeremiah 22:13–16

Galatians 6:14–18

Matthew 11:25–30

Psalm 148:7–14


I’ve been struggling these past few days. Maybe you have been struggling too.

Watching and listening to and reading about Thursday morning’s hearings was hard. Witnessing the kind of pain we saw on Thursday morn, the kind of grief that we saw, the kind of anger that we saw, the kind of trauma that we saw; well, I think that many of us paid a price for our witness.

I know that many of us paid a price for our witness.

I am not a survivor of sexual violence. I know that there are survivors here this morning. And I know that all of us have survivors whom we love in our immediate network. I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry. As paltry as that is, I am sorry that these past few days have touched such profound wounds in so many lives.

The price that we paid for watching these hearings was magnified for me and maybe for you by the deep mistrust and even contempt that it is apparent that many of our elected officials feel for one another and that many of our fellow citizens feel for one another. The marriage researchers, John Gottman and his spouse and collaborator Julie Gottman, have learned that contempt is the most consistent and reliable predictors of a divorce. What does this kind of mutual contempt mean for our country?

I realised how much all of this was weighing on me when I got up on Friday morning in a state of amorphous anxiety and anger. I was pissed off at nothing, at everything. I felt like I had been mainlining the news, that the reports out of Washington were an IV running directly into my arm and leaving me dangerously off-balance. On Friday morning, it felt like losing my keys or stubbing my toe might be the sort of thing that would be too much, that would leave me shouting and my hands shaking.

I remembered the scene in that movie About a Boy, in which a single Mom, played by the incomparable Toni Collette, is unable to fit a dish into her kitchen cupboard. And so she just begins to sob.

What do we do with an experience like this? How do you encounter it and not feel despair? How, in particular, do we encounter it as church?

Here’s what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to regurgitate something that you have heard elsewhere, somewhere outside of church, except dressed up in religious language. There is a quip from maybe 50 years ago that the Episcopal Church was the Republican Party at prayer. Here on the West Coast in 2018, our danger is almost the opposite, our danger is in becoming the Democratic Party at prayer – and the left wing of the party at that.

That’s not any better.

When a preacher, when a Christian, takes pre-existing taking points and then proof texts them with the Bible, when they enlist Jesus to back up whatever they were already going to say – that’s something that I have probably done, that I have assuredly done – well, we fail as disciples when we do that.

Here’s what I’d like to do instead. I’d like us to notice that this is the day when the church is full of an unusual number of furry parishioners, the day when we talk about and celebrate St. Francis. On occasion of shared hurt, I’d like to wonder about what this gentle Saint from the town of Assisi might have to teach us.

Generally speaking, we don’t spend a whole lot of time remembering Saints these days. Gone is the time when Feast Days were a big part of our shared life, when an English village would turn into something like a carnival when the Feast of St. Lydia or St. Stephen or whoever came along.

But Francis remains kind of a big deal. You see his statue in a lot of places, including Grace’s own garden. And on this day, we move his readings from mid-week to a Sunday in order to specially remember him. (That practice, by the way, while widespread is authorised nowhere in the Book of Common Prayer. This is a total deviation from the rules.)

Why do we do it? Is this just kind of harmless fun?

Maybe it is that. There is something wonderful about the prayers of the people when the congregational response includes a few barks. But I think that there is more than that going on. I think that this is a day that reminds us of who God is, of what God is like, and of what God thinks about us.

Every now and again, you’ll encounter one of those bumper stickers that says Dog is my co-pilot. And I have at least one friend who finds those stickers offensive or blasphemous.

But actually, I think that they might be okay theology.

What if the love with which a dog looks at the members of its family is a lot like the love with which God looks at you and me?

I have heard folks say that what they value so much about their pets is that their pets love them unconditionally. But as a theologian observed a while back, putting the word unconditional before the word love is actually a redundant. Love that is conditional isn’t love at all: that’s just approval. Genuine love is without limit or constraint. That is the kind of love that God has for you and me. We see that love made manifest in our pets.

In this season of hurt, know that you are loved. You are loved absolutely and without reservation.

Maybe that is a platitude. But it’s also true. And Francis knew that it is a truth that, should we come to believe it, should we come to trust in it, will change everything. Imagine what the world would look like if we all knew ourselves, knew in our bones, that we are God’s beloved children, and that our neighbours are equally beloved.

Francis was not, is not, a naïve saint. He knew about suffering, he lived in poverty, he worked for justice. Late in his life, he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. His body bore the hardship of being alive, of risking love. But he also was and is a saint who knows that this life is so, so beautiful. And that Jesus is with us every step of the way, whispering God’s love our ears, challenging us to grow in faith and in compassion, to grow not so that God might love us, but to grow because God loves us.

We have big work to do. Big work as individuals, as a parish, as a county, as a human family, as a family of all of God’s creatures. If we are to do that work, the work of bringing justice nearer, of bringing the Kingdom of God nearer, we need the strength of God’s love. We need to voice of Jesus, which never ceases to say:

You are loved, you are loved, you are loved.


St. Francis of Assisi + Blessing of the Animals + Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert


Jeremiah 22:13-16

Psalm 148:7-14 

Galatians 6:14-18

Matthew 11:25-30


To visit the town of Assisi is to step into a place which is equal parts awesome and ironic.

Walking up the hill to the town’s enormous and ornate basilica, you will pass gelato stands, stores selling postcards and T-shirts, and restaurants which offer an approximation of Italian food designed with the tourist’s palate in mind. The opportunities for you to spend money are just about without limit. Once inside the vast church, the testimony to the work of money continues, albeit in a different form – you are now within a structure that would cost north of a hundred million dollars were you to break ground on it today.

On the August afternoon that my wife, Phoebe, and I stepped out of the heat of the Italian summer and into the subdued light of the basilica, the sanctuary was full of tourists. A sign at the door indicated that we were to maintain silence, but the throng of folks from around the world, laden with their heavy burdens of telephoto lenses and mobile phones, seemed to be having some trouble remembering that rule. Thus, a young Franciscan was charged with pacing the space with a cordless microphone in hand. Periodically, he would intone: SilencioSilencio.

The worship space was spectacular. It proclaimed a God who was immense and ancient and impossibly beautiful. However, that space, as inspiring as it was, was not the reason that we had come to Assisi. To find that goal, we descended a set of stairs into an entire second basilica, still older than the one above, its walls infused with the smoke of centuries of candles. At the far end from the stairs lay the tomb of St. Francis.

It is said that Francis stood about 5’4”; short by today’s standards but likely average given the nutrition of his time. Francis is most famous, today, for his easy facility – for his communion, even – with animals. At times the remembrance of that charism holds the risk of turning him into a caricature: Francis is kind of the pet detective of the 13th century, a sparrow perched on his shoulder and a ferret or two nestled in the pockets of his robes. While that image is charming – and maybe even inspiring – it is also incomplete. It neglects two vital aspects of this saint, two aspects which make Francis way more exciting and way more challenging as a spiritual teacher.

The first exciting challenge that Francis offers to us lies in is his choice to become poor. Francis was born rich. But in a decision that would represent heresy for many people in the First World, especially the folks who gave us the prosperity gospel, he decided one day to join a group of men begging outside of a church. And with the cold pavement beneath him and the hunger growling in his guts, his hands outstretched in the hopes of the blessing of a coin, Francis abruptly understood that he was learning at least as much – if not more – about God sitting on the street outside of that church than he did when he sat on a pew within it.

So Francis made the decision to become what many people would call a loser, or a bum, or a welfare queen. He set aside his wealth and started searching for the divine in all sorts of people, things, and places. He looked for God in faces of the poor and in the natural world.

It is nature which brings us to the second exciting challenge that Francis offers to us. Francis insisted that nature was the image of God. He used language to speak of nature that wouldn’t be out of place in Native American mythology – language that we don’t necessarily think of as Christian. He wrote of “Brother Sun” and of “Sister Moon.” Indeed, Francis encountered nature in a way that would not be out of place here in Portland, where many folks say that they find the divine most easily on a hiking trail or beside a lake (this very week I saw a bumper sticker on a car outside of Grace Memorial that read, “I believe in God: I just call it Nature”).

Francis’ understanding of nature as God’s image did not confine itself to the beautiful. He insisted that all of nature, not just the animals cute enough to make it into our homes or our petting zoos, show us God’s image. God’s image is to be found in mosquitoes and in rats and in hurricanes and in droughts and in illness. Francis was sick much of the life – he was what we would now call chronically ill – and he wrote that his illnesses, much like the son and the moon, were his brothers and his sisters.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that line of argument hard to hear, especially as I start to plug actual illnesses into the equation. I don’t imagine, for instance, that there is person in this church whose life has not been touched by cancer. I suspect that just about everyone here either has had cancer or has lost of a loved one to cancer or knows someone enduring radiation or chemo right now. I don’t know, therefore, that I am ready to speak of Brother Cancer. I don’t know that I am ready to talk about Sister Parkinson’s or Brother Alzheimer’s or Sister HIV-AIDS. I don’t know that I am ready to use the language of family for these diseases. In fact, I have difficulty talking about those diseases without using profanity.

I want to suggest that these two exciting challenges from Francis – his choice to be poor and his insistence on seeing God everywhere, absolutely everywhere, including in injustice and illness – make him a particularly important Saint for us living in America right now. Because these two exciting challenges in concert invite us to examine the world with a hopeful criticality, perhaps we could say with a Gospel criticality. And as or more importantly, Francis’ two exciting challenges invite us to examine ourselves – and the systems in which we participate and from which we profit – with a Gospel criticality.

There are any number of subjects that we might consider critically and hopefully. Maybe your gears are turning right now, maybe you are wondering how Francis might examine us to understand poverty or hunger or economics in a new way. Rather than trying to talk about everything and, thereby, risking talking about nothing, I’m going to choose but one subject. And because it is raw in our minds right now, I’m going to choose the subject of violence, and in particular the subject of school shootings.

My experience of watching the nightly news is that, more often than not, it draws me into a place of passive fear. Maybe this is why Phoebe and I don’t own a TV: I find it hard to hear about the stock market and the senate and the latest school shooting without ending up with this curious and maybe contradictory combination of adrenaline and apathy, a state in which I am both thoroughly wound up and equally convinced that the world is irreparably broken, in which there is nothing to be done except to despair to drink heavily.

But Francis invites us to hopefully and critically ask: What if the world doesn’t need to look the way that it does? What if, much as I stopped participating in my inherited wealth, you can stop participating in your inherited assumptions about how life has to be?

We can begin living differently by doing something small. Let’s refuse to lavish attention on perpetrators. Hostage takings became less common when the popular media made the decision to stop giving free publicity to hostage takers and their demands. Suicides among teenagers declined when the popular media stopped publishing details of suicide pacts – what psychologists call the “contagion” of these destructive ideas declined. Let’s do the same with the perpetrators of school shootings. Let’s deny them the spotlight.

And while our critical hopefulness has got us wondering about living differently, let’s go even further. Francis proclaims that we don’t actually have to live in a country in which a young man who has fallen into a poisonous mixture of rage and alienation and narcissism finds it hard to get help but easy to go buy an assault rifle. We don’t have to live in a country where the only answer we can think of to that young man is even more people carrying guns, where the only answer is more and better violence. We can change that if we want.

If that strikes you as naïve – well, it is. Gospel criticality is always naïve. It is what St. Paul calls foolishness. When someone first said, “We could end slavery!” that was naïve – the American economy was predicated on it. When someone first said, “Women could have the vote!” that was naïve – women had been shut out of governance for so long. And how recently – ten years ago, even less? – did we know that marriage equality would never come to America in our lifetimes, and it would never ever come south of the Mason-Dixon line?

Francis challenges and enlivens our consciences by showing us the example of his life. Francis invites us to look at him, to witness a man who truly sees Jesus Christ in the least of these, our brothers and sisters. Who does not just visit the hungry and the prisoner, but who lives with them. Who does not just see God in nature but who lives beneath the canopy of the sky. Who testifies that he sees God in all things and means it. Who quietly invites us into Gospel criticality, quietly asks if we are willing to say yes to following Jesus as he has done.

Phoebe and I walked back down the hill from the great basilica which houses Francis’ mortal remains. Past the post cards and the T Shirts and the fake Italian food. We walked through that place of awe and irony, in which the life of a man dedicated to poverty and simplicity is remembered amid opulence and, maybe, even excess. I imagined Francis walking beside us, his ancient sandals on the cobblestones. I wondered if he would be angry to see this, his resting place.

My guess, however, is that, were he to visit Assisi today, these 800 years after his death, Francis would surprise us anew.

I imagine him standing there, amidst the chaos of that street. He is smiling gently, laughing at a joke that only he can hear. I imagine that, even in the bustle of tourists and the shouting of merchants, what Francis sees is the face of God.