Facing cancer with lessons learned from my parishioners.
Whether great or no, my recurring sermon is rich with mystery. Time and again, I return to the abiding themes of love and death.
I do so now for personal reasons. After enjoying a year of fine health, in late January 2008 I learned that my cancer had recurred, having spread to my lungs and liver. There is no way to sugarcoat this news. I must face the certainty that my cancer is terminal and the great likelihood that my future will be measured in months, not years.
Though all of our stories end in the middle, with unfinished business piled high, I should like to end my story, if I may, by sharing what I have learned about love and death from the members of All Souls Church during the three decades I have been privileged to serve as their minister. Time and again, at their loved ones’ deathbeds and together in my study, we have struggled to wrench meaning from loss, seeking to find our way through the valley of the shadow. Rarely acknowledging to themselves (or even sensing) their great courage and remarkable insight, on occasions such as these they have taught me the lessons of a lifetime.
One of the longtime members of All Souls Church, Damon Brandt, has compiled a stunning book of photographs, a series of candid portraits that he took of his father in his deathbed, with nurses and family at the bedside or waiting in the wings. (Click here.) Called simply, Hospice, and free of textual adornment, Damon’s unsentimental yet deeply moving record touches the heart. Why does it move those who never knew Damon’s father? Because his death is our death, too. We are never closer than when we ponder the great mystery that beats at the heart of our shared being.
When grandparents, parents, even children died at home, death was an inescapable presence in our lives. Today, shielded from intimacy with death by the cold, mechanically invasive and antiseptic chambers of hospitals, we lose touch with how natural, even sacramental, death can be. If we insulate ourselves from death we lose something precious, a sense of life that knows death, that elevates human to humane, that reconciles human being with human loss.
The word human has a telling etymology: human, humane, humility, humus. Dust to dust, the mortar of mortality binds us fast to one another. All true meaning is shared meaning.
I’ve said I didn’t become a minister until I performed my first funeral. When dying comes calling at the door, like a bracing wind it clears our being of pettiness. It connects us to others. More alert to life’s fragility, we reawaken to life’s preciousness. To be fully human is to care, and attending to death prompts the most eloquent form of caring imaginable.
When those we love die, a part of us dies with them. When those we love are sick, we too feel the pain. Yet all of this is worth it. Especially the pain. Grief and death are sacraments, or can be. A sacrament symbolizes communion, the act of bringing us together. To comfort another is to bring her our strength. To console is to be with him in his aloneness. To commiserate is to share her pain.
The act of releasing a loved one from all further obligations as he lies dying—to tell him it’s all right, that he is safe, that we love him and he can go now—is life’s most perfect gift, the final expression of unconditional love. We let go for dear life.
Adversity doesn’t always bring out the best in people. But the reason it so often does is because adversity forces us to work within tightly drawn limits. Everything within those limits is heightened. We receive as gifts things we tend to take for granted. For a brief, blessed time, what matters to us most really does matter.
Yet, how do we respond, when we get a terminal sentence? Far too often with, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Nothing. The answer is, “Nothing.” Against unimaginable odds, we have been given something that we didn’t deserve at all, the gift of life, with death as our birthright.
Unless we armor our hearts, we cannot protect ourselves from loss. We can only protect ourselves from the death of love. Yet without love, nothing matters. Break your life into a million pieces and ask yourself what of any real value might endure after you are gone. The pieces that remain will each carry love’s signature. Without love, we are left only with the aching hollow of regret, that haunting emptiness where love might have been.
Such is the story that unfolds frame by frame in Damon’s book. A man is dying. He has been given but a few sweet days to live. His wife and children gather at his bedside. They reminisce. They hold hands. They laugh. They cry. They wait. Their hearts tremble with love.
In face of a terminal diagnosis, by the way, the only question worth asking is “Where do we go from here?” And part of its answer must include the word “together.” Everyone suffers. Yet not everyone despairs. Despair is a consequence of suffering only when affliction cuts us off from others. It need not. The same suffering that leads one person to lose all sense of meaning can as easily promote empathy, the felt experience of another’s pain. Hope is woven into the lifelines that connect us. As Damon’s book demonstrates so vividly, to see our own tears reflected in another’s eyes is the most holy of intimacies. We enter the sacred realm of the heart, where the one thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.
Damon’s pictures tell life’s deepest story. And each carries the same meaning. The most eloquent answer to death’s “no” is love’s “yes.”
For us to be here in the first place, for us to earn the privilege of dying, more than a billion billion accidents took place. Even the one in a million sperm’s connection with the equally unique egg is nothing compared to everything else that happened from the beginning of time until now to make it possible for us to be here.
What a luxury we enjoy, wondering what will happen after we die, even what will happen before we die. Having spent billions of years in gestation, present in all that preceded us—fully admitting the pain and difficulty involved in actually being alive, able to feel and suffer, grieve and die—we can only respond in one way: with awe and gratitude.
We see little of the road ahead or the sky above. And the dust we raise clouds our eyes, leaving only brief interludes to contemplate the stars. All we can do, every now and again, is to stop for a moment and look.
Look. Morning has broken, and we are here, you and I, breathing the air, admiring the slant sun as it refracts through these magnificent, pellucid windows and dances in motes of dust above the pews, calling us to attention, calling us homeward.
Dust to dust.
Heart to heart.
The Rev. Dr. Forrest Church died at home on Thursday, September 24, 2009. This essay originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of UU World.
Adapted from a sermon delivered February 3, 2008, to All Souls Church, New York. Forrest Church’s latest book is Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow (Beacon Press, 2008; $22).
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The Rev. Dr. F. Forrester Church (1948–2009) served the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City as senior minister from 1978 to 2007 and as minister of public theology from 2007 until his death in September 2009. A frequent contributor to UU World, he was the author many books, including So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (2007), Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow (2008), and The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology (2009).
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