Death and how to live it

What happens when a family member is terminally ill?

Rev. Gregory Toole (left) and Pastor Molly Carlson (right) agree on the importance of support for ill family members.

Rev. Gregory Toole (left) and Pastor Molly Carlson (right) agree on the importance of support for ill family members.

SN&R Photo By Andrew Nilsen

This week’s Higher Ground was written and moderated by Keleigh Friedrich.

Q: My sister has cancer. She is divorced and has two kids, both out of the house. After the initial shock and sorrow, she told the family she is taking the “natural” route for treatment. Rather than undergo chemotherapy, she is trying herbs, acupuncture and even colonics. She talks about “visualization therapy” and seems determined to avoid Western medicine. I think this is irresponsible, but do I have a right to butt in?

“This will eat at the person as her own cancer if she doesn’t express it,” said Molly Carlson, pastor at Table of Grace Christian Church in Elk Grove. But when it comes to “natural” and Western medicine, Carlson was open about her own preference. “I have my own personal homeopath,” she said, laughing.

Carlson grew up in the Midwest and attended seminary in the Bay Area. She moved to the area two years ago. Table of Grace, a new-start church affiliated with the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, is a multiethnic congregation explicitly welcoming to gays and lesbians.

“There are limitations to both kinds of medicine,” Carlson continued. “The question is, what’s the point here? How bad is the cancer? Is it all about a cure, or is it about the quality of life in the time that’s left, rather than frantically trying to work against God? I know people who have even refused all treatment. But in a loving sister relationship, the key is open communication.”

Rev. Gregory Toole, of Davis’ Center for Spiritual Living, may be on a different spiritual path than Carlson, but he’s certainly on the same wavelength.

“This would be my exact approach. I would examine the intention in talking to the loved one,” he said. “To express concern is very natural and human and supportive. On the other hand, if the intention is to have the person ‘do it my way,’ that’s not supportive. When we’re in our sound mind, we know what’s best for us. … And ultimately, to be supported helps our healing.”

This kind of healing support is exactly what Toole offers to his own congregation, which Toole describes as a group of “independent-minded people who generally did not find themselves at home in traditional churches growing up.” Or, as in his case, people who didn’t grow up in any church at all.

Both Toole and Carlson cater to the “spiritual-not-religious” crowd, which, according to Carlson, is “the fastest-growing faith community in the country.”

“Religion and spirituality are being redefined globally,” said Toole, who believes that the impetus for change is not disillusionment, but instead, a longing for greater spirituality. “This is an opening for people to deepen and become more committed to their spirituality, because they’re owning it,” he said.

“There’s this deep yearning for connecting with the spiritual,” agreed Carlson. “And it’s a challenge for communities like ours to say, ‘This is a place where we can journey together.’”

Rather than presenting faith as “a list of rules to follow,” Toole and Carlson offer a holistic approach to spirituality that extends to the physical world.

“There’s so much more going on with a disease or physical condition,” said Toole. “It’s just a symbol of what’s going on internally. And Western medicine, with all its strengths, has limitations in that it’s often very isolationist. It’s not looking at the whole picture. Disease also reflects a person’s emotional and mental state, the way they look at life, their eating habits and level of activity. … Oftentimes, disease is a wake-up call. We often look at it as negative thing, but it’s really feedback to say, ‘Something’s off here.’ If we take the judgment out of it, it is this beautiful feedback mechanism that allows us to stop for a moment and say, ‘How am I being called to shift in my life? What is this calling to me on the ultimate path of my soul?’”

“A lot of our illnesses are actually symptoms,” added Carlson.

Toole shared his own “face-to-face” experience—not with an actual condition, but “knowing that a condition would come about if I didn’t make a change.” This meant leaving his high-paying corporate job to avoid an illness he felt would inevitably manifest.

“My body was telling me, ‘If you keep going in this direction, which is so against the grain of who you are, you will become ill.’ Everyone has that inner guidance. And for people who didn’t follow that, they just need to go back a little bit and listen to the healing their soul is calling for. Even in cases where the disease isn’t cured, there can be dramatic transformation.”