I feel, I hear, I know, I think, God that you are real and I am small, standing here in my bare feet, I feel my heart, Beat Beat Beat the rhythm of life pulsing through my simple veins, with each pump your grace rains, through the corners of my body and soul, Life God, Life, I need more of you, Take me to where you are! the rhythmic corners of your beating heart, on the Street, where People meet, the Divine is seeking, to find and gather, those who are Scattered, Up Down Around and All about.
We are all dying. Some of us are just going about it faster than others. Here’s the thing, though; you don’t know how quickly you’ve been dying until it occurs. Death happens to you; you don’t happen to it. The 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne said this: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately.” The Roman orator and statesman Cicero put it another way. To philosophize (or, in my case, to theologize) is to learn how to die. ” I’m in school every day. My dad has cancer, people I went to high school with are dying, colleagues are going into cardiac arrest, my denomination is on life support, and who knows how long I’ve got. If I do the math with the meds I take and the average life expectancy of someone in my shoes, I should move from the parsonage to a tent in the cemetery. Believe me; I’m not being morbid; I’m only considering ways to save my family money.
If you read through anything I’ve written, you know it’s been a brutal fall and winter for my family and congregation. COVID, cancer, and related misery have taken their toll. When combined with the suffering we want to remember worldwide, our hundred-plus-person prayer list is more than many of us can continue to bear. We are, as Psalm 40 says, in the mire, the mud. But, as I said a few weeks ago, we keep searching for a better way to pray.
My office phone rang at about 1:30 this afternoon. Someone had died. We would need to open their plot in the church cemetery to prepare for a funeral on Saturday. That’s how death works. I’m not talking about the biological mechanics of death. This person’s life and quality thereof ended long before his widow called. Most of the dying process (biologically and spiritually) happens before the person dies. Grief comes at the graveside. Grief is the empty room. Grief is calling a name and hearing no response. Death is now. Death is a front-row seat to life shutting down, emotional walls being built, fears being conquered, and life being lived despite, well, despite.
To paraphrase the Baghavad-Gita, we are both life and death, coexisting simultaneously. Despite death, there is life. Despite life, death remains. When we pull back the simplistic Cartesian veil of existence, we find ourselves somewhere in the middle with each other. Scoot over and make some room. Each of us needs to find a place, a community, and a home in the community of learners. Why? Because no one will make it out alive, and it is from that community of those who remain that we will learn to carry our grief together.
The insurance company said they wouldn’t pay. In forty-eight hours, they gave an outright denial. How do you like them apples? A man is dying of cancer. A series of oncologists and hematologists at two hospitals decided on the proper medical treatment for this specific cancer and prescribed the appropriate medicine. It is an expensive medicine by any reasonable standard for those with and without insurance. The specialized pharmacy receives the request to prepare and ship the drug upon authorization from the insurance company that they’ll pay for the medicine. The insurance company says no. Who are these nameless people who’ve decided my father should die or receive a drug less effective than his doctors deem necessary? I want to meet them. Will you look me in the eye? Did you go to Sloane-Kettering for your residency? What do you know that his doctors, those who gave him a first and second opinion, do not know? Or is it solely a question of money? Paying out of pocket isn’t an option. Death, however, is always out there just beyond the horizon. There’s no copay for death. It may be easier on the pocketbook, but I’m told it’s emotionally draining and spiritually painful for the dying and those who love the dying. I guess this is my life now.
We appeal their decision. I say “yes” to life. Scripture asks, “death, where is your sting?” Paul, I can tell you. It’s in a rejection letter from Aetna.
It is impossible to separate the cancers in our souls from those in our vital organs and bloodstreams. Toxic physical environments lead to cancer. Toxic churches lead to toxic theology and spiritual cancer. We have treatments for the former. I’ve met no one serious about undergoing spiritual chemotherapy. It’s too hard on our cherished assumptions, theological preconceptions, and well-defined notions of God.