Kiddie Kaskets and Kiddle Kologne

I’ve always been a private person, sharing my feelings with few people because I was taught at an early age that my family didn’t care about them, and if I did present a negative emotion, I would get in trouble. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” and “Get your ass off your shoulders” were heard often at our house. Even disputes with my brother that warranted parental involvement were met with the threat of the tattletale punishment.

This punishment was a literal eighteen-inch tail my mother made with braided leftover yarn in Christmas colors and a piece of white hemming lace tied into a bow at the bottom. A jingle bell was attached to the bow, its tinkle an aural reminder of my shortcomings (which were really my brother’s fault). Momma would pin the tail to the back of my shirt whenever I tattled on my brother. Usually, the threat of the tail would stop me from tattling, but sometimes, I had to wear the tail, and frequently it was when we had company. I guess Momma wanted to show what an innovative parent she was when it came to discipline.

Of course, the tail was humiliating to a sensitive little girl like me, and wearing it brought on hot tears of shame and indignation. Did it discipline me? No; it taught me the futility of telling on my brother and the danger of bothering my parents. Nothing good would come of either.

Not wanting anyone to see my humiliation and peeking around to make sure no one was watching, I would tiptoe up the stairs to my room, the tiny middle one in a series of three where I could hide and sulk alone with my ass-y shoulders. Where I could take off the hideous tail. I could escape in a book which took me to places where little girls visited secret gardens. A place where unloved little girls were rescued and turned into Cinderellas. A book where there was a happily ever after.

When things were really bad, when my cheeks were burning or when my mouth had been washed out with soap, I would imagine my own funeral, its sole purpose to punish those I felt had wronged me.

I can still see it the way I imagined it back then…

My body would be in a child-sized casket, a light, silvery-grey one carved with flowers and lined with white satin. The crib-sized pillow with the butter-colored pillowcase my grandmother had handmade was tucked under my head. Mother had embroidered little daisies all along the hemline, each perfect petal exactly the same size. I was wearing a long, lacy white dress with a square neck (not unlike my baptismal robe or later, my first wedding dress), and I clutched in my hands little purple flowers that smelled like the lilac Kiddle I had gotten for Christmas — a doll with purple hair and eyes like Elizabeth Taylor’s in a little jewel-shaped “kologne” bottle. My hands were atop a small white New Testament embossed in gold lettering that my great-grandmother inscribed and left for me the year she died. The year I was born.

The funeral home was air-conditioned, but the scorched air of the Georgia August day was no match for the window unit, so the lights were turned off, and the oscillating fans were turned on. The side room used for viewing and visitation was as dark as a cloudy twilight, the burgundy velvet curtains blocked most of the sun. One thin shaft of sunlight pierced through the curtains showing sparkly, dancing dust motes descending and ascending like angels on Jacob’s ladder.

During visitation, my grandmother’s church friends were crying and whispering while gathered in groups of two or three on the periphery of the room, eyes snaking toward my parents who were sitting in antique chairs at the head of the casket. Those mourners’ eyes and lowered voices confirmed to each other that my death was my parents’ fault. From behind the paper fans, they shared with each other that If only my parents had been good to me, had not neglected me, had believed me over my brother, had not made me wear the tattle tail, I would still be alive.

I became so good at imagining my funeral that I would truly start crying, unaware that I was actually grieving the parents and life that I needed but didn’t get.

Cancer has made me revisit and revise my “celebration of life” service to suit my grown-up preferences, including the smell of purple Kiddle Kologne. (Sorry, no Kiddie Kasket for me. I want to fertilize blackberry bushes.) I no longer think of my memorial service as a punishment for my parents, but as a natural progression – the clichéd circle of life, a real-life Elton John and Simba moment.

One recent Sunday, our accompanist played the most gorgeous piece, and after church, I asked her to play that song at my funeral. While she and I were talking about it without sentiment, others around us were shocked I was talking about “it” at all. It seemed natural to talk about my death with her. Though I don’t remember, I probably made some inappropriate joke as well.

I have a good (morbid/dark) sense of humor about death that comes from my family. Both my parents grew up on farms where death was a part of life. Both my parents talked openly about death, what they thought happened after death, and what they wanted at their funerals, or lack of funeral as my dad requested. So talking about death was a part of life, and using humor to deal with tough situations was a great coping skill to pass on to me. When my dad was dying of congestive heart failure, I would call him every day and ask how he was doing. Every day, he said, “I answered the phone, so I ain’t dead yet.” It was tragic, and it was hilarious.

Death isn’t funny to those left behind, and I imagine my friends won’t be happy that I am gone. Certainly, I hope I have made enough of a difference in their lives that I will be missed. Mostly, I hope that my life is a testimony that Christ never failed me, that childhood pain can be overcome, and that life is worth living, even when you’re dying.

Also, it’s okay to carry resentment into adulthood for the brother who caused me to have to wear that tattle tail. Just kidding…

Sort of.


I’m Still Here

There are few things I like more than a fresh start, so it’s no surprise that I love a new planner with all the blank boxes and pristine pages with no mistakes marring the virginal days. It holds so much promise and so much potential.

I suspect I love my 2019 planner a bit extra this year because I’m here. When I started 2018, I was still bald and neutropenic and just plain worried about treatments and chemo and living. Or not living. Those blank days seemed bleak, the stark white pages as sterile as the masks and gloves in the chemo suite.

This year, my future seems brighter. I’m still in remission. I have hair! Most importantly, I have time. I don’t know how much, but I learned to savor each day, celebrate each month, and plan for the year. To love my family and friends without reservation or condition. To be open to what God calls me to do.

For 2019, I challenge you to offer the gift of your service so that others might find hope; the gift of your heart so that others might find love; the gift of forgiveness so that all may find peace. Love the lonely. Tend the grieving. Heal the broken.

I wish you a Happy New Year.

Why I Want a Puppy, and Why It Won’t Make Me Happy

Everyone gets so excited about fall – the pumpkin picking, cooler temperatures, marching band, football, flannel shirts and leather boots, and of course, pumpkin spice everything. Ewww.

I’m more of a summer person. I love the hot temps, ripening fruit and vegetables, picking blackberries, and lying on our sun-warmed concrete driveway like it’s a hot stone massage. I feel alive during the summer.

Then fall comes and ruins everything.

Fall has always made me feel sad and depressed which is so literary that it’s almost cliché. In literature, seasons symbolize a person’s life. Oversimplified, spring is childhood and youth, summer is younger adulthood/prime of life, fall is older adulthood, and winter is death.

Summer adults are busy – busy with production and reproduction. Busy establishing themselves in college and careers, busy making babies and making lives better for their children so their children can then go on to have even better lives.

Autumn adults have lost their reproductive abilities, their vigor and vitality. Their children are grown, and the time has come for retirement. Fall brings the recognition that the best days are behind them and brings a resignation from activities that have shaped their identities, especially careers and parenting.

Why does this shift of season make me feel sad? Perhaps it’s because of my cancer or because my autumn will likely be short, and my winter come much too soon. But, I suspect it’s more than that. I want to turn back the clock because I still long to have one more holiday season where my children want to spend time with me and each other. I want to baby Chris and Michael by making their favorite foods and doing their laundry and singing their favorite songs and creating sock puppets they love. I want my grandchildren to have been at my house enough times to know where the silverware is. I still want to nurture. Clearly, I’m grieving. Or delusional.

Autumn highlights how much I miss my mother, and it reminds me that I won’t be here much longer. Will my kids miss me? Will they miss my cooking? Will they regret not learning how to make my blackberry jam the way I regret not learning how to make fried chicken from my mother? I’m afraid they won’t. I’m scared they will.

I want a chance to be better to my parents and in-laws to include them in our activities with our children. Because I was focused on making memories with our children, I never considered how lonely our parents must have felt wishing they could have more time with us. They never said anything, and I didn’t know or notice, and this makes my heart ache with regret.

In America, adults are not supposed to talk about any negative feelings they are experiencing, especially towards their children and family, and at no time are they to admit they feel sad or lonely. Only perfection and happiness are allowed. Only smiling selfies.

So we squash our pain, burying it as deep as a grave. But, I have a theory about how we manage our pain, how we channel our energies with surrogate children and grandchildren to fill the vacuous hole. That’s right! Furbabies.

Americans spend billions on pets each year. Why? Pets fill a void in our lives. I’m no stranger to dog therapy – we have two German Shepherds we regularly spoil. Strider and Stella are my closest companions, and we are devoted to one another – we’re a pack. I confess I still have puppy fever for a needle-toothed, long-haired, blond Dachshund puppy. He’s on my bucket list, and if I got him today, I would probably name him Finn because all our dogs are given literary names. Finn would take me back to my summer, his floppy spring puppyness needing constant attention and care, and this would fill up my mothering and nurturing bucket.

Think about the adults in your life who have doggies they adore. Do they seem silly in their attachment to their dogs? Could they be lavishing the love they want to give their children and grandchildren on their dogs? The companionship dogs provide helps with depression and loneliness because dogs give unconditional love and their presence which is all a parent wants. To be present in their children’s lives.

To clarify, I don’t have bad relationships with our children – all wonderful, successful adults with their own busy lives. We have three beautiful grandchildren with more on the way. Because we don’t see or talk with them as often as I would like, I feel lonely for them because I love them and enjoy spending time with them. I could try to fill that loneliness with a puppy, but truthfully, it wouldn’t help. A puppy would distract me from my pain but reaching out to them to share my feelings would be a better plan. Even if we can’t spend more time together, at least they will become aware of these emotions they might experience in the autumn of their lives.

Either way, winter is coming.


The fictional Finn

Accounting for Cancer

A few of weeks ago, my husband and I were late getting to church. We’re supposed to be there by 10:40 to warm up with the choir, but that day, we came in on two wheels and slid in like baseball players reaching home plate. We only had time to grab our folders and robes and get in line. As we sat down in the chancel, I noticed many grim faces in the choir, and I asked my neighbor what was wrong. She asked me if I had heard about one of our bass singers.

“No, why?”

“He was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer, and it’s already in his bones. There’s nothing the doctors can do for him except some hormone treatments.”

“What?!” My heart and my stomach dropped further than my jaw.

I love singing in the choir, and though small, our choir is something special. It’s more than the fact that we’re pretty good. Our choir is like a family who sings together and has a good visit a couple of times a week. I love our pianist, an amazingly talented woman whose golden hands and white-hot love for God is evident in every note she plays. I love my church for many reasons, but I especially love that the pastor and music minister choose anthems and hymns to thematically illuminate the sermon.

This day, the first hymn was “I’ll Fly Away” and the chorus’s last lines are, “When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” This song has a special place in my heart, and I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know it. My husband and our son love it because they attended Jacksonville State University and performed with the Marching Southerners who, at the end of every game/performance, sing this hymn while all the alumni in the stands sing along. It’s magical and moving like few things I’ve experienced, often moving me to tears. Also, it was my mother’s favorite song, and we sang it at her funeral. And right now, the song is a bittersweet reminder that though my days on Earth are limited, my days in Heaven will begin in the by and by.

But that Sunday, the Sunday I heard that my friend has metastatic cancer, it was the wrong song. So, so wrong. Our pianist played the most beautiful version of the song, and since we weren’t singing, I was able to hold it together, but my throat grew as tight as if I had swallowed a stone and tears were threatening.

I looked out at the congregation and saw two other men who recently had been diagnosed with cancer and had surgery in the last month. Both men are devoted Christians, husbands, fathers, and friends. Both have strong ties to our choir, and they feel like family. Hadn’t our small church suffered enough? Hadn’t the choir? I wanted God to give me an accounting of why we had so many choir members suffering.

I needed Him to show me a balance sheet.

Twelve years ago, my sister, Susan, was fighting ovarian cancer, and I was her medical advocate, attending doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy treatments so she could focus on getting well. She had already survived cervical and breast cancer, but her ovarian cancer was more advanced, the surgical and chemical treatment more aggressive.

Back then, I was in college taking a poetry-writing class for an English degree, and the emotional impact of her illness came out in my writing. I wrote a poem entitled “Line Up” because Susan said that she didn’t mind having cancer if that meant that her daughter, sister, and granddaughters would be spared, as though her cancer statistically cancelled out the chance that we would get it. What greater love than this, that a sister would lay down her life for her girls?

I was thinking about her “accounting” system – to pay the way for the women she loved through her own illness, and I realized that I, too, thought that my cancer was payment enough to cover my family and the other members of our choir family. Sadly, two more choir members or their family have been diagnosed since that “I’ll Fly Away” Sunday, and that seems like a significantly high number of cancer diagnoses considering what a small group we are.

Statistically, more than 7000 women in Georgia will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and approximately 1400 will die from it. Breast cancer is the second highest cause of death in the US, and nationally, a woman dies from breast cancer every fourteen minutes. What about me? What are the statistics for a woman my age with my type of metastatic breast cancer? The mortality rate for my type of cancer diagnosed after metastasizing to my liver and lungs is less than 5% survival five years after diagnosis. I’ve lived fifteen months so far.

I wish my cancer could offset the chance that my husband and children might develop cancer, but cancer doesn’t work that way. I can’t offer up my cancer as a payment to keep them healthy. I would, though.

God hasn’t shown me a balance sheet yet, but He did remind me that He will go with me through the valley of the shadow of death. He goes before me so I’m not alone in the dark. And until I fly away, I’ll keep singing with my choir, even if I’m singing in the shadows. Hallelujah.


The poem I referenced is below. As I re-read it, I am struck by the irony that I developed breast cancer despite my sister’s “payment” and my yearly mammograms.

“Line Up”

My breasts are suspects
searched monthly for
signs of their betrayal.
Hard evidence, a lump or bump
invisible to the naked eye.
Once, my breasts were dreams
budding in pre-pubescent slumber.
Dreams of full-formed cleavage,
a perpendicular line of power.
Later my breasts were the consolation prize,
pale as magnolias, tasting of peaches.
Now my breasts are mature,
but dangerous. I know
because my sister found
a pea-sized stranger in her own breast.
She offered up the lump
to Karma and the Universe
ruled by probability statistics,
that if one in four women
will get cancer in her lifetime,
her payment was large enough
to cover our family’s debt.
My breasts are no longer my own,
watched under the secure
guard of my gynecologist,
occasionally locked down
by mammogram and fear.
by Julie Land
Copyright 2006


Things Not to Say to Cancer Patients…or At Least Not This Cancer Patient

It’s hard to know what to say to someone who is going through a serious illness. I didn’t know what to say when people I knew were diagnosed, so I erred on the side of caution and said nothing. That was wrong. Worse than wrong. But platitudes make me cringe, and people say them all the time.

The ones I hear the most and what I’m thinking inside my head when someone says them:

You’re going to kick cancer’s butt!  What if I don’t? It’s statistically unlikely, and it makes me feel guilty knowing that I will probably not meet your expectations, that I will let you down.

You’ve got this!  If by “this” you mean cancer, I definitely have it.

You look so beautiful/good/healthy!  Really? You know I can see myself in the mirror, right? I’ve aged 15 years in the last year and can’t stand the way I look. Your telling me that I look good makes me wonder what other lies you’re telling me.

The worst thing someone said to me was by the cashier at my local Walmart. It wasn’t too long after my biopsies and port surgery that I went out for the first time to the store. I didn’t need much, and I was trying. Trying to get out of the house, trying to get on with my life. I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t smiling. I didn’t even speak to the cashier because I just wanted to pay and leave without having to talk to anyone.

This man, let’s call him Ray Don to protect his privacy, was older (and really should have known better), and as I was paying, he said, “Smile! It can’t be that bad!”

I tried to ignore his remark. I really did.

I glared at him and went back to the transaction. Then, he said, “There’s always a bright side to every situation!” Big grin.

My glare had warned him, but he chose to ignore my advice.

I was going to take a deep breath, mumble something unintelligible, and get out of the store. And I tried to hold my tongue, but my alter ego, aka Julia Sugarbaker, would not be silenced. She looked deeply into his eyes and with perfect dagger-like enunciation, her best southern accent, and a wicked-polite smile said,

Trust me when I tell you, Ray Don, that you have completely mis-assessed this situation. You have assumed that I have nothing to feel bad about when in fact, I just found out that I have stage four cancer and likely will not live until Christmas. I won’t be one of those pink-ribbon-wearing, sixty-mile-walking survivors you see on TV. I will be the pale, skinny, hairless woman whose greatest hope is not to die before she gets her affairs in order. 

 And, I know who you are. You’re not just a Walmart cashier. You’re a man, a Southern man raised in a era when men expected that women should be obedient and pleasing to them at all times. So, I want to thank you, Ray Don, on behalf of women everywhere, especially here at the Acworth Walmart, who need to be reminded that we are not pleasing if we don’t smile regardless of our circumstances.

 Sometimes, Ray Don, we women don’t feel like smiling. We want to wear the emotions we are feeling without censure from someone who doesn’t know what’s going on in our lives. In fact, sometimes we like just being ourselves with unhappiness smeared across our faces like runny mascara.

Triumphant, Julia stared at him until he handed over the receipt. She walked away with just a hint of a smile on her face. There was something to smile about after all.

Okay, I didn’t really say that, but I wanted to. And, I did stare at him for a few seconds and did the single, slow blink. My kids know exactly what I mean when I do that, and I think he did, too.

If you have ever said to me one of the many platitudes we all tend to say when we don’t know what to say, don’t worry about it. I’ve done the same thing because I didn’t know any better. When you don’t know what to say, say that. Say, “I’m so sorry!” or “This really stinks!” or “I love you.” Sometimes, a hug is just the right thing to say. Now that we know better, we’ll do better. And we won’t have to go off on the Walmart cashier.


If you are unfamiliar with the brilliant dressing down Julia Sugarbaker gave Ray Don, check out this YouTube video:


A Castle of Loss

A Castle of Loss…

Cancer, particularly Stage IV cancer, is a thug that executes a sneak-attack of felony battery and robbery leaving its victim beaten and deprived of health, community, friends, freedom, and control. It imprisons and isolates the victim creating a loneliness few people ever experience. No matter how many people are around, the cancer patient is walking a path alone. In a way, cancer is the ultimate “Green Mile.”

For most of the month of June, 2017 when I was first diagnosed, I was unable to communicate with my loved ones because I was mute and immobile—stunned, gobsmacked– I never saw cancer coming. I was like the straight-jacketed Percy Wetmore the other guards gagged and locked in the darkened padded cell. I was terrorized, sentenced to be alone and doomed in the dungeon of my castle.

I survived that month with the onslaught of scans and biopsies and telling my family and friends about my diagnosis. With every piece of doctor-provided literature I read, my life and my world were shrinking, and all I felt was loss. Nothing in the glossy pamphlets prepared me for losing my life, my future, my plans, and my goals. I was losing memories of my children’s life events that hadn’t even happened yet, like career success, weddings, grandchildren, holidays, and vacations. I finally understood what my mother-in-law meant when she said a few days after my father-in-law died, “We still have so many plans!” I still have so many plans, but cancer has robbed me of time.

What other things have been taken from me?

As Alan and I walked somberly through the hospital to the doctor’s office for my first treatment, my feet were slow and awkward as though shackled, and I couldn’t help but imagine I was walking the green mile. Wasn’t chemo just the first step toward certain death? I thought so, especially since my chemo regimen included a chemical derivative of mustard gas, and I was allowing, no – choosing, poison to be put in my veins. What choice did I have? I wanted to live. Death row prisoners have no choice in the manner of their deaths, and all prisoners hope for stays of execution. My only choice was to take the best and most current regimen for my type of cancer because it was the only thing that gave me hope to beat cancer. I think the role of the oncologist is to be a “peddler of hope,” and I was buying.

I had six infusion chemo treatments over eighteen weeks and then began daily doses of two oral chemo drugs and a monthly injection. The poison’s side effects are numerous, and my brain seems to be missing a few links as though I had a brief electrical encounter with Old Sparky himself.

Before cancer, I imagined my brain as a solid – a white and red jello-like consistency that’s been made with too little water in order to make an intricate and beautiful mold for a bridal or baby shower. Today, I envision it more like a sieve leaking out minute bits of memory, words, and names, and getting worse with every single dose. This state of “brain fog” has a slang medical diagnosis: chemo brain. And, boy, do I have it. And I’m saddened for its loss.

What other losses do I count? I can’t risk exposure to the outside world when my blood counts are down letting me know that my immune system is weak. In other words, it is too dangerous for my health to be around large groups of people, particularly children, for many days of the month which eliminates teaching – even teaching Vacation Bible school at church. Being imprisoned in my home takes me away from my career, my teaching friends/peers, and my community. I am home alone almost every day, and I miss my friends and my colleagues and my students. I am in isolation the majority of time like a death row prisoner who only gets 30 minutes a day outside the cell.

My daily chemo schedule also robs me of physical strength and stamina –  both physical and mental energy. Imagine the flu’s onset with its fatigue and achiness when all you want to do is rest and recover quickly and get on with your life. With the flu, you can always see the end in sight. With metastatic cancer, the only end I see is suffering and death.

Is that it? Just imprisonment and walking through the valley of the shadow of death? No, certainly not. Because a castle of loss…

Is Still a Castle

Don’t get me wrong – I live in my dream house. It’s beautiful and spacious. Our home feels like a mighty fortress protected by my sentries, Strider and Stella. Natural light shining through all the windows onto the hardwoods glow like the warm ambiance of hundreds of candles, and we are nestled in the woods. Looking out, all we see are trees. We have no need for window treatments as our closest neighbor’s house can’t be seen from our house. The loudest sounds come from Strider and Stella, the birds in the trees, or an occasional gun shot. We live in the country, after all. It is peaceful – our own hermitage.

My family supports me in every way possible – especially Alan. He handles all the stressful aspects of cancer including the dumbassery of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies to keep me from being more anxious about the cost of treatment even though it creates more stress for himself. He is my love and my hero in this quest, a Lancelot to my Guinevere.

Our son, Michael, has chosen to continue to live with us to help, and seeing his beautiful face and getting precious time and hugs from him every day is strong medicine. I don’t know of many 25-year-old young men who would postpone their lives to help take care of a sick Momma. He is my heart.

In my castle, our two dogs keep me company throughout the day, and they have divided their roles. Strider guards the house, and Stella mothers me and knows (usually before me) when I’m having a bad day. Bless her heart! She has a tough job. She really hates when I lie on the bathroom floor to cool off from a hot flash, continually nosing me to get up, and it’s not a gentle nudge. She uses that nose like an appendage to the point where she can open doors with it. I am grateful for their presence, their care, and their loyalty.

Cancer has shown me who my genuine friends are, and they constantly and consistently check in on me, sending me prayers for miracles, texts that make me laugh, cards of encouragement, and gifts that astound and humble me with their thoughtfulness and generosity. When I’m trapped in my castle, they are my connection to the outside world, their expressions of love breadcrumbs to find my way back to the outside world.

I’ve been studying Job lately, inspired by his faithfulness to God despite his circumstances. When he was covered by agonizing boils from head to foot, he wished he had never been born, but never cursed God. I have cancer, but I don’t wish I had never been born because I wouldn’t want to miss any of the precious moments that He has given me so far.

I don’t think God or Job would mind if I paraphrased a verse. You know the one: Job said, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I keep inverting the first sentence saying “The Lord takes away, and the Lord gives.” While some aspects of my life have been radically changed by cancer, more good things have come to me in the last year than I ever could have dreamed or imagined. The Lord has given to me abundantly, and I wouldn’t change a thing about this last year. Not even the cancer.

The Fruit of the Spirit: Goodness

This is the talk I shared at my church on Sunday, January 28, 2018.

Good morning! My name is Julie Land. Most of you know me because you have been praying for me for the last seven months since I was diagnosed with cancer. What many of you might not know about me is that I’m a teacher. A high school English teacher. A high school American Literature and Composition teacher. I hear your groans. I also hear your brains whirring, recalling the times we’ve spoken and wondering whether or not you used proper grammar. I promise…I never think about your grammar!

A self-described nerd, I have loved books and words my entire life. I even loved my 6th grade grammar class that included diagramming sentences. But it wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered etymology, or word origins. When I teach, I introduce etymology to my students to exponentially increase their vocabulary. For example, one vocabulary word my students must learn is the word mortify. I ask students to think of other words that have “mort” in them and name them aloud.

When they look up the definition and etymology of mortify, they find that the word means to be embarrassed, and the Latin root mort literally means “death.” Thus, the students find that mortify means more than just being embarrassed, but means being so embarrassed as to feel as if you’re going to die. High school students can readily identify with being that embarrassed – usually at the hand of their parents!

Many of you have been introduced to etymology through Bible study, and the word we’re going to look at today is goodness.  Before I began studying scripture for this talk, I thought it would be easy to speak on goodness because I have been on the receiving end of kindness and goodness since last summer through prayers, cards, gifts, calls, and texts, and I am truly grateful.

Did you notice that I said kindness and goodness? That’s because I didn’t understand the Biblical difference between the two. I thought that goodness was a quality within a person, and kindness was how they actively expressed their goodness. Certainly the two words are closely related.

But as it turns out, the Biblical word goodness in Galatians 5:22 comes from the Greek word agathosune meaning “virtue equipped at every point” and as relating to believers, the goodness that comes from God and shows itself in spiritual, moral excellence, but it also includes rebuke and discipline.

Not used in any secular Greek texts, this word appears only four times in the Bible. For the purpose of this lesson, we will focus on 2 Thessalonians and Ephesians.

2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 (HCSB)

11 And in view of this, we always pray for you that our God will consider you worthy of His calling, and will, by His power, fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified by you, and you by Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 5:9 (HCSB)

9 for the fruit of the light results in all goodness, righteousness, and truth— 10 discerning what is pleasing to the Lord.

While showing kindness to others is a part of goodness, goodness also includes an additional aspect of righteousness and truth that is meant to lead a person towards reform or change. And, goodness always expresses the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I began thinking about Biblical examples of how Jesus spoke the truth to people who needed to change or grow spiritually, and there are literally dozens to consider, but the one that really speaks to me is the encounter Martha had with Jesus in Luke 10:38-42.

Some of you have just started mentally writing your grocery list because you’ve heard these passages dozens of times before. You’re thinking, Frazzled housewife or the overworked “20 percent” church volunteer needs to focus on Jesus, not the busy-ness around them. I understand. That’s the lesson I took from this passage as well.

However, I became excited as I reread this passage with new eyes until I realized that verse 42 is the last verse of that chapter, and NOTHING else is said about Martha. God left me with a cliffhanger! In “Lit teacher” jargon, God stopped at the climax without letting me know the falling action or the resolution. My students absolutely hate when I have them read a story that has an ambiguous ending where they must decide what happens to the character at the end, and when I was studying this passage, I felt their pain.

Then I did what I recommend the students do: I imagined what happened after Jesus spoke the truth to Martha for her own good – her spiritual good.

I can see Martha, standing in front of Jesus, sweaty and out of breath from rushing around, her mind spinning from the mental list of tasks she had to do. I feel her anger as she realizes that Mary, whom she expected to help, has disappeared and is sitting near Jesus, listening to his teaching instead of helping her as a sister should, letting all the work fall on Martha’s shoulders. I understand Martha’s approaching Jesus as the highest ranking male in the room to ask him to tell Mary to help her, indignant that she be the only one to serve so many. Martha’s mind is buzzing with how she will berate Mary when Jesus makes her assist with the preparations.

There’s a moment of silence, then Jesus says, “Martha.” Her mind is still thinking about cooking, so Jesus says, “Martha, dear.” He speaks with love, and that gets her attention. Then he says, “You are worried and upset about many things” which shows his empathy towards her situation.

Then he says, “But…” In literature, “but” is what I call a turn-around word. You are going in one direction, BUT then you completely turn around and go in the opposite direction.

Jesus tells Martha, “But only one thing is needed.” What is that one thing? Martha wonders. I’m scurrying around to provide food and drink to him and his disciples, and I can’t do one more thing by myself. The one thing I need is Mary!

Jesus continues, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.”

I imagine Martha standing there in front of Jesus and the disciples and Mary. She doesn’t speak; she can’t. Her cheeks are burning. Her tongue feels too large for her mouth, her throat too tight to swallow. She wishes she were anywhere but here. Indeed, she is mortified.

I feel certain that Martha was speaking on the inside, and I imagine her internal dialogue all began with her own list of “buts.” But, Jesus! I am working and cooking and cleaning for you and your disciples. Doesn’t that count for anything? But, Jesus! If I don’t offer hospitality, who will? But, Jesus! Aren’t I doing important things?

I completely identify with Martha and (what I imagine was) her speechlessness. When I found out I had stage 4 cancer, I was dumbstruck. I could not talk about it to anyone for a long time. And when I talked to God, all my responses began with a list of “buts.” But, Jesus! I still have so many plans! But, Jesus! I’m a teacher. What will the students do without me? But, Jesus! I need to see my children settled in life and see the birth of my grandchildren. But, Jesus! I’ve never done the thing you’ve asked me to do. Not yet, at least. But, Jesus! I thought I’d have more time.

The fact that Martha and I began every objection with “but” suggests that we were going in the wrong direction, and it is only through correction that God could reveal the right direction and ultimately, his goodness. Scripture tells us that goodness is not a quality we can manufacture on our own. James 1:17 says, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” This certainly includes a life characterized by goodness. In letting the Holy Spirit control us, we are blessed with the fruit of goodness.

So, did the spiritual correction work on the hearts of Martha and me? In a familiar story in the Gospel of John, Martha and Mary send for Jesus because their brother Lazarus is sick. The scripture says that Jesus loved the family, but He stayed away until after Lazarus’s death in order to show God’s power and glory. When He arrives in Bethany, Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you may ask.” I’ve always read this verse with Martha having an accusatory tone, and I think it’s because of the shortcomings I see in her in Luke.

But now, I read that she is stating a fact, and she’s hopeful that although four days have passed since Lazarus has died, there is nothing that God cannot do. She also states that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ who has come into the world. Martha has become a believer, and her heart is filled with his goodness.

Jesus Christ, our perfect example of the fruit of the Spirit, was the model and definition of goodness demonstrated by a human being. Now, no longer human, He sits at the throne of God eager to help us in our lives. And to help us, the Holy Spirit often uses correction tempered with love to assist our growth in goodness. Once God’s Spirit is at work within us, it produces the wonderful fruit of the Spirit; these fruit, or virtues, blend together to reflect the overall character of God. As the Holy Spirit works in our lives, our character changes to become more god-like.

What about my heart?  It’s had a “turn around.” And, the only good in me is the God in me.

Of iPhones and Acme

I upgraded to my new iPhone mid-May. While losing some contacts and text messages was inconvenient, the thing I hated most was the time it would take for my phone to learn my personal lexicon for predictive text. On May 31, seven words changed my life and broadened my vocabulary.

Bing! I received test results via the patient portal from my doctor’s office about 3:30 am. I picked up the phone and determined the message could wait until morning. I had had a CT scan and expected the results to show that I had gallstones and would require surgery. I had put off dealing with my gallbladder attacks all year to take care of during the summer break to minimize the impact on my students. I didn’t want to miss one or two weeks out of the school year since the course I taught had high-stakes testing. Plus, I was having the best school year ever, and I didn’t want to miss any time with the students I had come to love.

I love being a teacher, but I also love my summer breaks. I was willing to take two or three weeks of my summer to recuperate from gallbladder surgery as long as the doctors could do it quickly before my beloved blackberries ripen. After all, I am the blackberry jam queen, and missing any time in my blackberry patch was blasphemy to me.

That morning, I was lying in bed, watching Alan iron his shirt for work, luxuriating in the soft sheets and summer schedule, the sweet knowledge that I had seven blissful weeks of resting and playing, of creating and consuming, of reading and writing. Might as well start my reading with the email.

I opened the patient portal and began scanning down the report to the results. Nothing noted in the gallbladder. Strange. All my symptoms were completely consistent with a crapped-out gallbladder: upper right quadrant pain, pain shooting out my back, nausea, pain worse after eating fatty foods. That’s gallbladder for sure. I’d double-checked my symptoms on the internet, so I was positive.

I was positively wrong. The results showed nothing abnormal in the gallbladder, so I kept reading until the last line which said the radiologist found “two liver lesions consistent with metastatic cancer.”

This can’t be right. I’m pretty healthy for a gal my age. Allergies? c’mon. This is the South. Some arthritis, sure. GERD, of course. A little chubby from stress eating and not enough exercise, absolutely. But cancer, nope. Not me.

Closing my iPad, I didn’t mention the report to Alan. I was so sure that it had to be mistake that I didn’t want to worry him needlessly. I would call the doctor and get this mistake rectified, and Alan would never need to know.

A visit to the doctor that afternoon didn’t go as I had planned. I thought he’d read the report, agree with me, and schedule my gallbladder surgery. Instead, he said the radiologist who read my report was virtually never wrong in his findings. He also explained that the cancer had metastasized into my liver from somewhere else, and we needed to find out where ASAP.

A whirlwind of tests, biopsies, and appointments with specialists and surgeons were scheduled. I was Wile E. Coyote, and an anvil was just dropped on my life.

That blow from the anvil messed with my ability to speak. I literally could not say the words out loud to the people who most needed to know what was going on in my life. I was too chicken to level a blow to my loved ones knowing that the words would change and impact their lives and cause them pain. So, I texted. And texted and texted, answering their questions as best I could, and my iPhone learned a whole new set of words. C is for cancer, b is for breast and biopsy, m is for metastatic, and l is for liver.

I have stage 4 metastatic breast cancer with liver mets. This is my new vocabulary, and everyone knows it. Including my iPhone.