The crab apple trees were in full bloom, pink and teeming with life. They were full of spring’s best promises: Winter had gone, and new life had come. I could see them below my fifth-floor study carrel at Western Theological Seminary’s Beardslee Library. The month of May in that second year of seminary meant final exams and turning in papers and projects. It also meant grief and, mysteriously embedded in it, a growing sense of call.
The month of May meant grief and, mysteriously embedded in it, a growing sense of call.
The previous fall in Hebrew class, a seminary colleague, Chuck Breen, told us he’d gone to the doctor, concerned about a suspicious spot on his chest. Further testing revealed aggressive melanoma. Soon he learned that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Chuck was admitted to long-term care at a local hospital in January. Chemotherapy started in February.
The seminary community rallied around Chuck. We prayed. We cried. Some fasted and gathered weekly, interceding for healing and restoration in Chuck’s cancer-wracked body.
Chuck was an understated guy, preferring to advocate for others rather than to assert himself. He lived his life with a radical simplicity. One story that epitomized his commitments was Chuck’s purchase of a brand-new pair of shoes – his first in 12 years. He was the coordinator of a nonprofit organization called Michigan Darfur Coalition and gave his spare time to travel and raising awareness for Darfur refugees. Before seminary, Chuck taught middle school band for nine years, cultivating a love of beauty among his students.
That spring semester, Chuck took a leave from his theological studies to focus on his cancer treatment. His chemotherapy treatments left him nauseated and weak. In January, Chuck wrote the following on his CarePages, an online journal designed to provide a space for medical updates:
“One other thing that I’ve been trying to sort through is how to approach life for the next 4 or 5 months, especially with everything being up in the air. I’ve decided I want to cut way back on my classes, and just take 2 or 3. I am trying to create sort of a sabbatical for myself … a chance to open up more time for the healing opportunities that will come my way. More time to join prayer groups … More time to join a group of cancer fighters like myself. More time to drink tea. More time to watch Lake Michigan. This thought process helps me to look forward to the coming months with a positive attitude rather than walking forward in fear.”
Chuck was confronting the reality that his life had changed. He was confronting his own limits and mortality. He knew he had to adjust his plans to this new diagnosis: he was a cancer patient. But more than that: he was the beloved of God. Looking out over those crab apple trees, I remembered his wish for time to drink tea. Something about that wish hit me as particularly modest for a man dying of cancer.
That May morning had dawned bright, resilient. I had received word early that morning that Chuck had died. I sat at my desk at the library, staring at one of my final projects: write a funeral liturgy for the early death of a young man. I wept my way through that project; I began writing that funeral liturgy as if for Chuck, as if I was writing it for any one of the community’s beloved saints in the Lord. How do we walk through the death of a saint among us? How does the community of faith, the Church, journey with them to their grave? How do we name the deep loss and hold forth the promise of Jesus to us, that we will see the resurrection of our bodies?
If we’re honest, who of us knows how to die? Martin Luther says in his “Sermon on Preparing to Die,” that “we should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move.” Luther instructs us to think on our deaths in our living so that in our dying, we might fix our eyes on Christ alone. Psalm 90 encourages us to number our days, that we would gain a wise heart.
But who of us practices familiarizing ourselves with death? It is easier for many of us to keep our own wrestling with death at a distance. Those who are suffering and facing the reality of their impending deaths, however, have a unique capacity to teach us this spiritual practice of numbering our days. This is the perhaps the most profound gift that a dying person can give us: an awareness of our own mortality.
LEARNING TO NUMBER MY DAYS
Seven years have passed since that May of Chuck’s death. Now I have the holy privilege of standing before the gathered congregation to proclaim that “we are gathered here in this place to worship, to proclaim Christ crucified and risen, to remember before God our sister or our brother, to give thanks for their life, to entrust them to Jesus, our merciful Redeemer, and to comfort one another in our grief.”
Walking through Chuck’s death taught me to number my days. And through it, the Holy Spirit showed me my calling to ordained ministry. I came to this deep awareness: I am called to walk with the dying in the context of congregational ministry. And while I knew this call particularly, it is surely one we all share: we are all called to walk with the dying, for we are all mortal, made in God’s image; we are all ones who will someday die.
The triune God’s steady presence and steadfast promise is this: God will never leave us nor forsake us. This means that nothing – not the diagnosis we were hoping against, not the decision to receive palliative care, not a shortened life span – nothing – can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are to think on our deaths in our living. We are to walk together as a called covenant community who has made baptismal promises to each other. We are to lament. We are to pray. We are to hope. We are to trust that we belong to One who is faithful to never let us go – not in life and not in death.
As John Witvliet says in Worship Seeking Understanding, “Dying well is possible when we cultivate the imagination to sense the beauty and mystery of God’s future. Dying well happens when a community faces death with hope – that combination of imagination and faith that turns our attention toward the future.” That future for me, for you, for Chuck, and for all who hope in Christ is the promise of the new creation. It is of an embodied future, one with a table spread long and wide and abundant. It is of a community, the communion of saints, who, with new bodies, will gather together, made whole and holy, redeemed and new.
This hope of Christ’s redemption pulls us forward, for God’s future is breaking into our present. In that spring of his dying, Chuck wrote these words: “Yesterday was a gift from God that reminds me of a new creation to come. Lord, thank you for yesterday. We are reminded of your awesome presence in our world and that you are waiting for us in the future with a new creation where your glorious kingdom will reign supreme. Amen.”
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Kristen Livingston co-pastors Abbe Reformed Church, Clymer, New York.