Finding Life in Loss
A member of our congregation died late Wednesday evening, bringing his battle with cancer and a brain tumor to an end. He was only in his early fifties, had a deep love of life, and was happily married. When his cancer was in its earlier stages, Bob would visit the Thursday morning theology sessions that I hold in my office for the pastoral staff. He had a keen intellect to match his large heart, and a commitment to not only study the Bible, but live out his faith, even in his dying.
Aside from grieving the loss of a friend, and pondering once again the scourge of cancer in our culture, my associate pastor and I spent time together yesterday contemplating 'the end of life' as we drove to Bob's house to visit with his wife and plan the memorial service. We live in a culture where the last days of one's life are up for grabs. Early exit strategies are juxtiposed against medical technologies which now have the power to sustain life, at least at the breathing and brain wave level almost indefinately. The fight for the right to die is pushed by some, and contested by others (mostly the religious right). Often lost in all of this is a more fundamental question, a question that needs to be asked in the framing of these discussions:
Why are we here?
If the answer has to do with production, making things, and contributing to the gross national product through the creation of goods and/or services, then it follows logically that those who aren't 'productive' anymore are expendable. A culture saturated in Darwinian ideals may well move towards that end. I suppose that if this were purely a material world, such thinking makes sense. But we have the Gulag to remind us that such thinking, while workable on a material level, strips both soul and civilization of all beauty, hope, and mercy (and we need to be careful in the west, lest our barbs tossed at communism blind us to the dangers of economic Darwinism inherent in capitalism).
The truth articulated in the Bible points us in a different direction: People have value because they are image bearers of God, and they are no less image bearers in affliction than in health. In fact, the Bible says that while the outer man (the physical body) is wasting away, the inner man is being renewed day by day. So Bob, though he slowly lost his faculties, never lost his capacity to share life - just his presence, his struggle, his grace in the face of suffering, his hunger for God, his love of his wife, spoke; and spoke right up until the final day. His life was a gift to all who knew him, up until the very end.
Henri Nouwen writes of his experience in leaving academia in order to live in community and spend his days caring for the developmentally disabled. He reminds us, in the book that's linked here, and many others, that people have value because of who they are, not because they can be measured as units of production.
Finally, a more personal note. Days planning memorial services are hard. But last night, I arrived home and my wife had prepared a lovely meal for the two of us, who found ourselves alone for an hour before an evening obligation she had. We sat at the table, and as soon as it was quiet, we joined hands to pray. It was raining outside. The new, vibrant green shoots of life on our fir tree were glistening with fresh moisture. Life was everywhere. And when the prayer was over, there were tears. Somehow the intrusion of death rekindles in me an appreciation of the gifts of life - always present, but rarely appreciated. Maybe, as part of living well each day, I need to contemplate loss more than I do. Maybe that's why I'm a pastor.