An unwanted journey, an unsought blessing

An interview with Rev. Harry Parker

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Rev. Harry Parker has been pastor of First Baptist Church in Oak Park since 1990. In the fall of 2009, he was diagnosed with incurable cancer. In the spirit of Easter, he consented to talk about how that experience changed his life – in the hope that others might find his experience useful.

What was your initial reaction when you were diagnosed?

Parker: I didn't have any of the markers that you would expect to have for prostate cancer. They caught it very early, and everybody was completely confident that I was going to be fine.

But six weeks after the surgery when I had my first blood test, and they expected the PSA to be zero, it was 3.5, which is almost what it was before surgery. My surgeon was so surprised that he said, "In 20 years, I've only had two people with numbers like this." So we ran the test again, and it was a little bit higher.

Something was up, so he referred me to a couple of oncologists at the University of Chicago, and it was up to 5.1. It was climbing very, very quickly. Obviously, it was a very aggressive strain that had gotten out of the prostate even before surgery, they believe.

It was devastating. Linda and I just held each other and wept every night. I was terribly frightened by it. There was a pretty dark cloud over my life for about 2½ months. I remember vividly the feeling of being strapped into a roller coaster. I just wanted to get off. I could not get off. I wanted things to go back to the way they were. There was no escaping it.

Did it feel like you were embarking on a pilgrimage?

Parker: Certainly an unwanted journey. I didn't know where the journey was going to take me, and I thought the journey might end a lot earlier than I wanted. One of the first Sundays after the diagnosis, I said, "It feels like the future's been stolen from me."

But I gradually came out of all that. Part of it was some substantive medical reasons to be hopeful, that this could be managed for some time. There is no cure for this cancer. They hope they'll be able to manage it a long time, but there is no cure.

Some of it, not a lot of it, was getting used to the idea of my mortality. I'm still not where I want to be on that. Part of it was the journey into prayer and finding some peace that helped me deal with it. All of those things together helped me come out of that darker place.

It sounds like you didn't just wait to come out of it.

Parker: I very quickly discovered that my spirituality was about a mile wide and an inch deep. Oftentimes, my devotions had been rather brief and done with the same spirit with which I floss my teeth. Often it was not particularly rewarding.

One of the first books I read after I got my blood test was The Gift of Peace by Cardinal Bernardin. I'd read it years ago, but I wanted to see what his journey was like with terminal cancer.

He talked about letting go. He talked about redemptive suffering. He talked about listening to God. And I didn't understand all that. I wanted to have the kind of experience that Cardinal Bernardin described: No matter what happens, I'm at peace. I really was not. I was very troubled, very anxious.

One of the first things I did was read the Bible. And I discovered somehow, overnight, it had become an entirely different book. There was a thirst that I had now. It spoke to me in such a powerful way.

There was a survey by the Pew Center, I think, about all aspects of clergy life. And they asked, "What is the single greatest weakness that you have in your ministry?" And by a large margin, they said, "spiritual development." I felt that was my story.

I'm not beating up on myself too much about this, in large part because one of the things that St. Ignatius of Loyola said is that it takes a desert for us to meet God.

I had not really been to the desert. I had had a pretty smooth life up until this point, and I think for a lot of us, it takes a desert before we really begin this kind of in-depth journey into developing spirituality. Some things can only be discovered in dark places, and those are the most important discoveries.

Where has your spiritual journey taken you?

Parker: I think the richness has come primarily in my discovery of St. Benedict and St. Ignatius of Loyola. I realized that I needed some help. So I went to see Sister Joan O'Shea, a Dominican, to work with me as a spiritual director. She was very helpful and introduced me to St. Benedict– the importance of listening with the "ear of the heart," the importance of being present in the moment, the sacredness of all life, creation theology, the sacredness of work, the balance of work and prayer and worship. All those things were important.

But Ignatius of Loyola is really the guy who has changed my life. Sixteenth century, Spanish, former soldier, a nobleman, very handsome, a ladies' man, affluent, successful, destined for a life of great things in politics or business. When his leg was shattered by a cannonball in battle, he lost much of his physical charm. He had a profound conversion experience, delved into deep spirituality, which he then wrote about and eventually founded the order of the Society of Jesus.

One of his hallmarks is finding God in all things. That's kind of his mantra. One of my discoveries, through Ignatius and through personal reflection, is that God is far more present and far more active in our world, and in my life personally, than I ever imagined. Every conversation, every task, God is present, so you need to pay attention to what's going on during the day.

For me, God had gotten compartmentalized into those 15-minute devotions in the morning. One of the things Ignatius made me aware of is to seek to understand how God is present even in a conversation like we're having right now, being aware of God's presence in creation – not that God is the tree, but that God is speaking to us through these gifts.

Another thing Ignatius says is foundational is cultivating the spirit of gratitude – we are bombarded every day by gifts of love, and they tend to be small things that often go unnoticed. Benedict and Ignatius have a lot in common. They say that very small, ordinary gifts are constant reminders of God's love for us.

The Ignatian Prayer of Examine is at the heart of developing one's spirituality. There are five steps to it, and I've found it to be a wonderful tool. (See sidebar)

Prior to this, an awful lot of my prayer life was my laundry list of what I needed God to do for me today. This is much more a listening kind of prayer. When Bernardin talked about the importance of listening, I didn't know how to do it. How does one go about listening for God? The Ignatian Prayer of Examine gives me some of those tools.

The next step is to focus on your sins, but you can only do so in the context of knowing how deeply you are loved by God. He felt that our fundamental identity is "a loved sinner." You can't have one to the exclusion of the other. If you only have a sense that you are loved, that's out of balance. If you only have a sense that you're a sinner, that's clearly not healthy. The healthy bedrock is that you're a loved sinner. That's just foundational.

So that is where my spiritual pilgrimage has taken me. I do find that my devotional time is not a chore. It's probably my best hour of the day.

What have been the benefits, personally and in your ministry?

Parker: I have felt more of a sense of groundedness, fullness and wholeness than I had before. All this takes time. I'd like to think there are some fruits developing – a greater sense of peace and confidence and hope and trust. I'm not there completely. I can still get anxious about my condition and frightened and depressed, but I'm not just anxious and frightened and depressed. I have more confidence and hope than I have anxiety.

Others have commented that my sermons seem to have a depth they didn't have before. I always took preaching very seriously, but now I take it even more seriously. And I have a great desire to offer deeper messages and really wrestle with the texts for God's word.

My diet's different. I'm not happy about that. I'm supposed to avoid things that I really like.

The ultimate discipline?

Parker: Yeah, right. But I think there has been a fundamental shift in my understanding of what I am supposed to be as a pastor. Several months ago, there was a book that I came across, Preaching as Spiritual Direction. The author says the role most of us have been trained in as pastors is to be "fixers." While that is part of it, she says, "That's really not what our job is. Our job is to help bring people into an encounter with God."

That's what I see much more as my ministry, to help people make a connection with God. I used to feel a pressure to rush in and fix things for people who were in trouble. Now I'm much more inclined to step back and think, "Where is God in all this?" Some things can only be learned in dark places, and those are the most important discoveries. I'm living proof of that. This would not have happened without a diagnosis of incurable cancer. I'm a different person than I was a year ago because I have incurable cancer.

I've started to offer some spiritual mini-retreats on Saturdays, and it's been surprising how well attended they are. I think that I'm experiencing something other people have a hunger for. I've been sharing some things, particularly from Ignatius.

My life has changed. There's no question that this has been the worst thing that has ever happened to me. But if I can manage this cancer for a long time, I think it's going to prove to be one of the greatest blessings of my life.

Last June we had a graduate recognition service. I started thinking about Exodus, and I said, "You high school grads must feel a little like the Israelites. You've been in slavery for four years, and now you're on your way to the Promised Land – college, jobs, things like that. The Promised Land is a wonderful place, but there are dangerous enemies in the Promised Land. Those enemies include freedom and prosperity. The Israelites did not fare well when they got to the Promised Land. They forgot God and got into all kinds of problems. Ironically, their best time, the time they were closest to God, was in the wilderness."

So I said, "I don't know what to wish for you. I don't know whether to wish for you wilderness or the Promised Land. I think what I really want for you is both – that you would have enough of the wilderness experience in your life to keep you close to God, but enough of the Promised Land so you will be overwhelmed with a sense of God's blessings and goodness and favor."

In a strange way, I wish I had been diagnosed with cancer about 25 years ago. It would have made a big difference in my ministry, I think.

Do you think your congregants are seeing you as more human because of the struggles you've gone through and shared with them?

Parker: I do feel like a fellow pilgrim. This past year after Journey to Bethlehem [First Baptist Church's annual live nativity production in December], the director, Mary Lee Eneberg, asked me about my experience playing the Bedouin, which is a relatively new role. Mary and Joseph meet him on the road to Bethlehem. And I told her, "I really like that role, more than any other role I've played." I realized that that's maybe how I see myself. By nature, I'm terribly shy. I've learned to overcome that, but I'm an introvert. The Bedouin is kind of in the background, but here's this couple who are in need, and they're traveling a difficult road, and he offers them a place to rest, some shelter, a place to get warm before they continue on their journey. That's not a bad image of being a pastor.

I don't have a cathedral to offer as far as wisdom and faith and insight. I'm not a spectacular preacher or administrator or anything. But I'm able to offer some shelter, some rest, some direction, some familiarity with the road, and some help along the way. That fits for me.

Christians this week are retelling a great story about a savior conquering death by dying and rising from the dead and thereby "destroying" death. Yet I don't experience most Christians as being less afraid of death. It's a paradox – a very human paradox. You've had a much closer encounter with death now. Does it make you less afraid? How do you deal with that paradox of fearing death, yet preaching, "Do not be afraid."

Parker: I think there's real ambivalence about death. On the one hand, you have someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who says that anyone who has heard about the Resurrection, and anyone who believes in the Kingdom of God, has a homesickness to go to heaven and absolutely no fear of death. In fact, when he was being led to the scaffold, as he was leaving the jail cell, he said, "This is not the end for me. This is just the beginning."

That view looks on death as more a friend than an enemy, something to be welcomed. But most of Christian thought looks upon death as the enemy. But in Christian belief, it's the defeated enemy.

My dad, who was also a pastor, was very afraid of death. I was so surprised when he told me this. I was able to be with him the last week of his life, to take care of him down in Florida. And I asked him then if he was still afraid to die, and he said no, not at all. He said, "I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to seeing your mother again."

Bonhoeffer said that God will give us the strength to face whatever challenges we have, but he will not give it to us in advance. I'm wondering if the Holy Spirit gives us the peace when the hour comes for us to face death, but not before. I'm inclined to believe that.


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Amy Johnson Bax  

Posted: April 27th, 2011 4:23 PM

Thanks for sharing this candid interview with Pastor Parker. It's moving to see how this experience has changed him.

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