It’s the stories that matter

By Maria L. Evans

All during my growing-up years, I never really could figure out why my great-grandmother Louise died in 1939.

The relatives told two drastically different stories. One version was, “She got stomach cancer, and it went everywhere.” This was almost always immediately challenged by other relatives, who would interject, “No it wasn’t! She had…” (and the speaker would invariably lower his or her head and speak in a hushed tone of voice this last phrase) “…female cancer.”

I only knew two things about this growing up–that no one could agree how she died, and that even though I was not exactly sure what female cancer was, it must be worse than other kinds of cancer.

As I became a young adult, I learned a little more, but not much. I knew she had been taken to the then-brand-new Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia, MO and had “treatments.” When I became a resident physician in pathology at the University of Missouri, I did several rotations over at Ellis Fischel, and found myself obsessed with discovering the truth of this story in my family. I am sure in my mind, as the first person to go to college, let alone medical school and become a doctor, I fantasized myself as this grand purveyor of the family truth–a truth that would somehow raise my status in the family and allow me some respect as a full-fledged adult member. I would no longer just be “the strange kid whose nose was always in a book.”

Fulfilling this quest was not difficult at all–all of the Ellis Fischel patient records were in storage dating back to 1938–and what I discovered within the yellowed pages filled with Parker-style handwriting confirmed my educated medical guess. She had been opened up in an exploratory surgery and found to have metastatic cancer throughout her abdomen and pelvis. The multiple biopsies were examined and read out under the microscope by the pathologist there at the time, who postulated that the appearance of the tumor was most like that of a primary adenocarcinoma of the stomach. Both her ovaries were extensively involved by metastatic tumor.

I’m sure I swelled up with my own self-brilliance. I had postulated that she had a primary cancer of the stomach, which had metastasized to her ovaries–what we call a Krukenburg tumor.

I suddenly viewed myself as “the person who was going to settle this once and for all.”

The next time I was around several of my relatives, and the subject came up, I literally stood up and announced, “Y’all have been arguing this one for years, and I’m just gonna tell you what happened.” I made my proclamation with all the authority of someone giving grand rounds at a prestigious teaching hospital, expecting people to look, or at least, behave enlightened.

I was not prepared for the response. They just all looked at me, and muttered, “Oh.” One of the relatives who was the most insistent that it was “female cancer,” said, “See! I told you she had female cancer!” Despite my careful clarity in stating it originated in the stomach, the fact it was merely on her ovaries was enough for her to stick to her original statement.

But as they started talking, other stories emerged, and I began to see I was the one who was to become enlightened. The story was not about “what kind of cancer my great-grandmother had.” The story really was about what happened to everyone else in the family and how they felt about Louise’s death, and what carried over as a result of it in the next generation. It was an era when doctors didn’t tell the person with cancer that they were going to die. Sometimes they didn’t even tell them they had cancer (although her going to a state cancer center pretty much took that one off the table.) I discovered “what the story was about” was different for each older relative in the family. It was about the difficulties they had in knowing Louise was dying and Louise pretty much knowing she was dying and no one addressing it. It was about being sent home for a protracted, painful death that my grandmother had to watch as a 22 year old with a small child. It was about being unable to afford a visitation at the funeral home and “sitting up with the dead” and receiving visitors in her home. It was about my great-grandfather becoming meaner and more difficult in the remaining ten years of his life. I came to learn years later it was why, when my grandmother was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, she became convinced that I was somehow going to block her from knowing her diagnosis. I still learn things about this story to this very day. What began as my quest to “shut everyone up, once and for all,” turned out to open me to a never-ending set of discoveries.

To me, this is the crux of what reading the Bible, not just as an individual spiritual practice, but in a community of worship, is all about–revealing deeper stories within ourselves and to each other.

It’s our tendency, I think, in this fact-based modern world, to dissect Biblical text in much the same way as I dissect surgical specimens grossly–cut it to shreds, examine the pieces, select the pieces we want to examine microscopically, and render our diagnosis upon it. Under that light of scrutiny, the Bible will always fail the exam. For those who hinge their faith upon the Bible being literal, as well as inspired, it will always require “one more proof,” because there will always be someone out there who finds a new scroll, a new bit of archeological hoo-ha, or a new tomb that reveals an error or discrepancy. When we take the Bible apart with no regard for the history, the culture, or the factual knowledge base of the people for whom these writings are originally intended, it becomes no more than a quaint historical tchotchke–like viewing an iron lung or a rotary telephone. It did a lot of good once–but why would we ever want to use it now?

Yet, our Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer states that “God still speaks to us through the Bible” (p. 853,) and I certainly believe that. It’s not to say we shouldn’t dissect it–in fact, I think we should, and in fact, I do on a regular basis in my blogging, writing, and preaching. It is only in the process of dissecting it and naming the parts and seeing the parts strung all over that we come to realize what the Bible represents is actually more than the sum of the parts.

The core of the Bible, to me, that defines its synergistic nature is in the telling of the stories.

When one reads the stories individually, and in groups, we hear bits of our stories in its stories, and we can begin to relate the stories in community, and we discover it wasn’t about the actual “facts” in the story at all. It’s where the story took us, it’s where we see our lives within them, and it’s about how we proclaim them corporately as the church.

When we read the Bible as part of a daily spiritual practice, it doesn’t matter how many times we’ve heard the story–we always hear something new if we allow ourselves to be open to the possibility. When we hear it proclaimed in the readings during worship, we hear it in another person’s voice, in another’s inflection and choice of emphasis. When we hear the homiletic response to these words, we hear the benefit of the experience, education and point of view of the person in the pulpit, and the same sermon takes each person in the pews to a different place, a different response.

It’s why the mismatches in the four Gospels don’t bother me anymore. I am simply hearing four different accounts of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, rendered at four different times, for four different reasons. Spinning my wheels trying to bolster my faith by explaining the Resurrection scientifically would be a pointless exercise. Of course, any atheist worth his or her salt would simply say “that’s because it didn’t happen,” and that’s an equally pointless exercise. Frankly, if one doesn’t believe in it, and it is not a part of what motivates one’s life and behavior, it’s a moot point. The assertion is only useful for “dissing” Christianity and Christians.

When I think back to my comparatively less formally educated relatives and the story of my great-grandmother’s cancer, I have come to realize (and be grateful) that understanding every detail of a story is not a prerequisite to “understanding the story.” If my faith required “proof,” I would, indeed, be lost.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, Missouri, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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