Making Sure of God

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

At St. Louis’ Cathedral Basilica. SJG photo

“Pooh!” Piglet whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
- A.A. Milne

On a visit a few years ago to St. Louis’ Cathedral Basilica for a mid-day Mass, I pushed open the massive doors, and the chilly fall wind behind me seemed to almost blow me inside. “Get in there right now,” I could almost hear God say in the gust.

As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit sanctuary, I saw a scattered body of twenty or thirty devout souls who had made their way here from their jobs, their classes, and their lives. I was not a regular like many of them no doubt were, but I did come here occasionally for holy days or, more to the point on this given day, when it seemed like I should. This particular day was the tenth anniversary of my father’s death.

I slid into a pew, removed my coat and tried to breathe normally. I closed my eyes, soaking in the quiet of the stone walls and the lingering aroma of spent incense. In some ways, I didn’t want to be there at all because, when it came right down to it, I was angry. I’m always angry when I try to figure out what happened to my father’s life. His was a life of promise, creativity, and healing cut short by alcohol, cigarettes, and depression. I wanted God’s undivided attention on this point. I wanted to scream and pound my fists on his chest like a bewildered child. That not really being an option, I instead lowered the kneeler and dropped to my knees.

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Finding God at the Center

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

Centered and balanced on God, Missouri Botanical Garden. SJG photo.

During the period of remission between my first and second rounds of chemotherapy, I attended the funeral Mass for the brother of a friend from church. As the Mass ended, the musicians began playing a song I love and know well, and the chorus of the old Quaker hymn flowed over me like a cleansing, refreshing morning shower:

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

As a musician and a singer myself, I have always been drawn to this song for what I guess are obvious reasons. I have always felt a “call” to sing and make music, and this old song always resonated within me. There is nothing, I once thought, that would ever keep me from singing. But I found out over time that that wasn’t entirely true. As I experienced some of the tougher days of my disease and treatment, there were times when singing was the last thing I wanted to do. For me, this was one of the more difficult aspects of coping with my disease. It wasn’t that I couldn’t sing; it was that I just didn’t feel like it.

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Grappling with Life’s Numb Moments

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

Hiding from the numbness: Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. SJG photo

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. — Albert Einstein

Over the course of my treatment, my chemotherapy drugs have caused what is known as “peripheral neuropathy.” In short, my hands and feet are numb. My size-ten feet tingle when I walk, which sounds a little like a line from a Broadway musical, but it’s far less entertaining. When the neuropathy first kicked in, I kept dropping things (most memorably a full glass of milk all over the kitchen floor) because my sense of touch had changed with the deadening of the nerves in my hands. I learned to laugh while I cleaned up the messes, and my wife learned to never just hand me a drink without asking, “you got it?”

All in all, I guess it’s a pretty small price to pay for the unrelenting work these killer-chemicals are doing to beat the disease into remission, so I’m not really complaining. But nevertheless this numbness is a strange and constant reminder of the whole kit and caboodle—disease and treatment rolled into one unique experience.

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In Chemoworld

[An excerpt from my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”]

Another world: Watkins Glen State Park, New York. SJG photo.

Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone. – Thomas Merton

The moment the elevator door opens on the seventh floor and I enter the treatment center, I feel as if I am in a different world from the one where I spend the rest of my days and nights. It’s different for a number of reasons: the place itself, my fellow travelers in treatment, and my own state of mind and spirit. Chemoworld, I call it.

The center, although part of a massive, modern and sprawling medical center in St. Louis’ urban and trendy central west end, is generally quiet, and the people around me seem (again, generally) pretty unaffected, at least for a time, by the world outside the walls of the center. The economy may be falling apart, political candidates and parties may be railing against each other, and war may be raging in far-flung regions of the world, but for a few hours none of that matters as much as the battle being fought between life and death in our own bodies. As killer chemicals are sent racing and screaming into our bodies like tiny Kamikaze pilots on a mission, we’re in a different world.

I realize that, so far at least, I have been luckier than many in that my treatments are relatively quick affairs. I’m usually in and out within an hour or two and, while the treatments themselves make me weak and achy for a few days, I’m well aware that many others are not as fortunate. All that could change for me tomorrow, of course. For now, though, I am blessed.

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Disease, treatment (and faith) revisited: Ten years of “Embraced by God”

This past month I celebrated a few milestones. It has been ten years since I was first diagnosed with a rare blood disease called Langerhan’s Cell Histiocytosis and embarked on a three-year journey of disease, treatment, recovery and remission, and seven years since I finished the manuscript for my book, “Embraced by God: Facing Chemotherapy with Faith.”

In celebration of all that (yes, even the disease, which changed my life positively in so many ways) I am going to publish a series of excerpts from my book over the course of February. If you know someone for whom these words might be of help, please feel free to pass them on. The book is now out of print by my publisher, although some copies might be available out there on the internets. I also have a supply gathering dust in the basement, so let me know if you’d like to purchase a copy for yourself or to pass on to someone you love.

Additionally, I will be giving a retreat based on my book this summer from July 14 – 16 at the Marianist Retreat and Conference Center just outside St. Louis. “Embraced by God” will be a weekend retreat exploring the spirituality of living with cancer and other chronic diseases.

Embracing the Mystery

True faith has nothing to do with jollying people along. It has everything to do with facing the fact that things may be an utter and total mess, may be on the verge of going to hell in a hand-basket, with the conviction that God is at work in the mess.

- Michael Himes

For some mysterious reason, my body has decided to throw a wrench into my otherwise very good life. Even though I’ve been basically healthy for a while now, and my treatments haven’t overly disrupted my everyday life, this disease and its treatment have changed me in many ways – some of which I may never even realize. And even though my doctors and nurses are wonderful, and I’m surrounded by caring friends and family and all their prayers, there is no doubt that this whole thing encircles and encompasses me. It is the great and brooding mystery of my life. So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mystery.

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Living with Expectation, Gratitude and Availability

Missouri Botanical Garden, SJG photo.

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Somehow, it’s January 1 once again. We have made yet another trip around the sun. I’m not one for making public declarations of my resolutions (although I do need to step up my walking and watch my portions once again…) but today I return to a question that might lead to a good resolution for all of us to consider on this first day of a New Year: How do we begin each day?

The older I get, my biological clock seems to be replacing the digital one beside my bed. On most days I awake a few minutes before the mechanical one goes off. So waking up is not a problem. Especially when you consider the alternative! I used to joke that I rarely saw the sunrise (“You mean to tell me that there are TWO six o’clocks?”) but now on most days I’m up before the day is. The question is, HOW do we wake up?

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A Video Christmas Card: Christmas to Me

Thanks to you all for reading and responding this past year. Here’s a little Christmas greeting for you that asks the important question: What is Christmas to you?

Christmas to Me

Christmas to me, isn’t the lights on the tree
The wrappings and the bows
A reindeer’s glowing nose.
Christmas to me, isn’t so easy to see
In endless games and toys
For little girls and boys.

And no matter where I go
All the trappings and the snow
It just isn’t merry
It just isn’t Christmas
Till I am home again with you.

Christmas to me, echoes the mystery
The sacred holy night
A grace so pure and bright.
Christmas to me, lives in the memory
Of family and friends
A love that never ends.

Words & music by Katie Cooper Nix, Phil Cooper, Steve Givens, and Jim Russell
©2007, Potter’s Mark Music

The MO Bottom Project

John Caravelli, guitar
Phil Cooper, piano
Pat Dillender, drums
Steve Givens, vocals
Gerry Kasper, bass

The Creative Spirit: Music in the Silence

In the chapel at Marianist Retreat & Conference Center. Sculpture by Br. Mel Meyer, SM

“Going nowhere…isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” – Leonard Cohen

Last weekend, I helped lead an advent retreat at the Marianist Retreat & Conference Center just west of St. Louis. Whenever I return to this beautifully spiritual place, I feel like I am returning to “nowhere,” as Cohen writes above, to a place where I can step away for a while and see everything a bit more clearly. And I think I begin to hear more clearly and succinctly, too, as the noise of the city and everyday life melts away and I find myself surrounded more and more by silence.

In that silence, I have found, I can often “hear” what God is saying to me, can begin to discern more clearly what God perhaps has been saying all along when I was too busy to listen and life was just too loud. Sitting in the chapel late last Friday night, I began to think of this silence in terms of music, which is itself made up of both sound and quiet, of course. In the “music” of this all-to-hard-to-find silence, I began to feel myself drawn in the direction of the master composer and musician, the One who brings all to life, throws beauty over the world like a prayer shawl, and invites us all to “waste time with him” every once in a while. So I wrote this short poem:

The light in the chapel has been dimmed
the retreatants retreated to their rooms
the silence of night surrounding me and ringing in my ears
a present but somehow unheard concerto.
Quiet like the drawing of a bow across invisible strings within
a soundless song that yet angles me in your direction
points me toward your presence
floating in the room like a single bright yellow fan of a gingko leaf
dropping slowly and freely and yet
demanding my attention
asking for my consent and response
requiring my awe like a whispered sigh from my lips.

A song, yet not sung
as silence demands itself to be heard alone.

O you, who make the leaves fall noiselessly.
O you, who make the silence sing.
O you, who compose and give life
and demand we play it through to the orchestrated end.
Only you, O God.
Only you.

Happy third Sunday of Advent to you. It’s a time to stand still and learn to be amazed. In the immortal words of E.B. White’s sage spider, Charlotte: “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” For it’s there.

The Mo Bottom Project’s CD Now Available

Friends and readers…

I am happy to announce that my band — the Mo Bottom Project — has released our first CD, “Well Traveled Road,” a collection of 11 original songs that span some of our favorite musical genres from Americana/folk to bluesy old-time rock ‘n’ roll and are lyrically inspired by the history, landscape and stories of  the Missouri River Valley near where we live and grew up. These are stories of out-of-luck farmers, young lovers, old men in even older houses, flooded roads, and the car cruisin’ culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. (Though not specifically religious, we’d like to think these are songs of faith and redemption…)

If you’d like a copy of the CD, there are a couple of ways to do it. You can visit the band’s website — — and order a direct download from ITunes or CDBaby, or you can write to me at and I’ll tell you how you can receive a good old-fashioned CD copy.

Thanks for reading…I’ll be back soon.

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Video Meditation: Presence, Gratitude and Extraordinary Lives

Back in May, I posted an essay and a song called “Extraordinary Lives.”

Here’s a little slideshow/video for you…relax and enjoy. Be grateful for the day. Extraordinary Lives, by Phil Cooper and Steve Givens. Copyright 2016, Potter’s Mark Music.

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