Wit and Wisdom

Watching the deeply moving movie Wit several years ago made me deeply appreciative of the work that nurses do. Among other things, the film reminds us that the most direct connection between medical care and the patient is the nurse. Her (or his) skill and compassion makes a world of difference in how illness and death is experienced.

After it was over, I had to call my daughter, a nurse, and thank her for what she did. (Further thoughts on that first viewing here.)

20696006I recently finished reading Being Mortal by surgeon, professor, speaker, writer, husband, and father (a man with way more time than the rest of us) Atul Gawande. It is a deeply personal, well-written, and engagingly thoughtful book, subtitled “Medicine and What Matters in the End”. Gawande leads us through the tangled web of issues that confront us when we consider death and what leads up to it. I read it as a pastor but found that it would be a worthy read for any who expect that someday they might, you know, die.

I especially appreciated the tour that Gawande gives of the line, the very thin and often imperceptible line, between decisions that prolong life and those that simply postpone death.

If the hero of Wit is the nurse, the heroic role in Being Mortal is played by hospice. Hospice nurses and doctors navigate that line between life and death with greater insight and often a better hold on reality than the rest of us. In my experience, and that of Gawande, they humanize experiences that others make clinical. And they do it well. In thirty years of ministry when I’ve been in the presence of death, I’ve always found the presence of hospice to be deeply comforting and an indispensable blessing.

And so, when I finished reading Being Mortal, I had to, once again, pass on my appreciation to my daughter who is, to be precise, a hospice nurse.

The point for readers here is not my daughter, as it is for me. The point is to watch the movie, to read the book, and to be pointedly grateful for those you know whose work and calling bring them to the side of those who need them when, in life and death, they need a humanizing touch.

A Heart of Wisdom

It’s not because I’m teetering on the brink of antiquity that I’ve picked up Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End to read. Rather, I chose it because it was recommended by a medical-student-to-be and because it deals with a subject my profession brings before me with some regularity. Death comes to the archbishop, priest, and parishoner alike. And it will come to me no matter how hard I try to ignore it. Gawande reminds us with relentless detail just how mortal we are.

“…at the age of thirty the brain is a three-pound organ that barely fits inside the skull; by our seventies, gray-matter loss leaves almost an inch of spare room.”

That’s harsh.20696006

We run out of pigment in our scalp (thus re-coloring our hair). Our arteries grow hard and our teeth grow soft. The amount of light reaching the retina of a sixty-year old is 1/3 of that of a twenty-year old. And on he goes. We don’t die as much as we just wear out and run down.

I’m wearing out, and as hard as it is to be reminded of this it is good he has done so. That is, in fact, his point. The things we hide are the things with which we do not rightly deal. We ignore death. We push it aside, and sanitize it in hospitals and nursing homes. We pretend we can escape it, we act as if we can cheat it. But it comes to those we love and it comes to us. So there is wisdom in being forced to face it.

Someone once told me that I would not qualify as “old” until my children were closer to 50 than I am. That threshold is looming, as, perhaps, is “nature’s final victory” (per a surgeon Gawande quotes) And so we pray

Teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)

For God Took Him

Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. (Genesis 5:24)

In the genealogies of Genesis 5, this line regarding Enoch stands out because it does not say that Enoch died, as it does of all the others listed, but that he simply ‘was not’. For reasons we cannot know, his transition was different. The writer of Hebrews says that he did not ‘see death’. He simply was no more because God took him. Enoch’s uniqueness lies in his not tasting death. All who walk in faith and then leave this life do so because ‘God took him’.

God took my friend Dave yesterday. Dave did, in fact, see death, but it was, as far as we know at this point, quick and without terror. He was recovering at home following successful by-pass surgery when God, through a means not yet known, took him.

Dave pastored a church in my denomination. His church was located five miles from the one I pastored and as for a time, while his church was in its early days, we shared a building, we had much more contact than many pastors might. As different as we were, we became friends. It was a friendship that for me was essential for my persevering as a pastor.

A few months ago I was asked to serve on a panel discussing how pastors stay mentally and spiritually healthy. My primary contribution to that panel was first to say that I’m not sure that I am healthy. But I went on to say that if perseverance is any indication of health, I owe that to a small group of friends who have both believed in me and have loved me with all my faults. Foremost, a pastor needs other pastors before whom all facades are removed and complete honesty can prevail. Few pastors have this. Dave became that for me.

Fred B. Craddock was a man who for many years trained pastors. He made sure that he got to students early in their seminary education to tell them this:

You very likely…will experience lapses in your own personal faith. Do not panic. In the interim between the lapse of faith and the return of faith…let the church believe for you until your own faith returns. (Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, page 8)

Dave believed for me and I for him during those lapses over 20 years of ministry. One cannot measure the gift that was. It is rare. And one cannot imagine that being gone.

To share the depth of the loss is not possible now. Memories clamor for attention. Shock and sorrow mingle, and if in me, how much more in his lovely and now bereaved family.

I cannot understand why God would choose now to take him. And yet to know that it is God who took him provides a measure of comfort. His passing is not a random loss. Dave walked with God and then, inexplicably but certainly, God took him. God, who gave his own son. God, who raised Jesus from the dead. God, who loves with an everlasting love. God took him. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Of course, God knew full well what he was getting in taking Dave. If you knew and loved Dave, simply replace the name ‘Mitch’ with ‘Dave’ below and smile with me. We’ll miss him.


Philip Seymour Hoffman

I’ll never quite know why and how it is that a particular actor becomes one whose death I lament – but hearing that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose of heroin yesterday struck me as very sad. I feel I’ve lost something that was valuable. A face, a voice, a presence that I’ll never experience again.

Hoffman Magnolia 300x201

The best and most reflective tribute I’ve read is this from critic and author Jeffrey Overstreet.

In a way, we mourn the death of actors because we love the characters they played, not because we knew who they were as individuals. And it’s plain to see that Hoffman was fighting a terrible battle behind closed doors, while audiences enjoyed what he could do to bring other personalities to life.

We don’t know them, and what the average observer might not know is that Hoffman was fascinated with the character of Christ, and considered himself a believer. This was sparked by the genuine faith of his sister and the vigor of her evangelical community.

The idea that a young person could be sane, generous, intelligent and Christian held out great appeal for him. So did the palpable sense of community he felt with his sister and her friends.

The whole piece is worth reading, and pondering. Soberly, he concludes:

Moreover, I am inspired to remember that even if all of my worldly dreams come true and I gain riches and fame and respect, I am still vulnerable. I have no place to speak any words of judgment over the circumstances of Hoffman’s death. In my moments of clear-thinking, I know that I have my own addictions. I have my own secrets that exist in direct contradiction to what I profess and what I long to be. By grace, I’ve been spared all kinds of devastating consequences. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner, and upon us all.

O, Death

It’s near the end of the Coen brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? that the bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley sings the brooding ‘O Death’. It is a haunting song echoing a common plea: “O death, won’t you spare me over ’til another year…”

That plea, or at least that desire, is the driving force behind all philosophy, according to Luc Ferry in his well-regarded and often recommended book A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. Both religion and philosophy, Ferry suggests, are driven by the same engine, the passion to find a way around, through, or beyond the anxiety caused by the reality of death. Both are, that is, seeking a path to salvation.

Unable to bring himself to believe in a God who offers salvation, the philosopher is above all one who believes that by understanding the world, by understanding ourselves and others as far our intelligence permits, we shall succeed in overcoming fear, through clear-sightedness rather than blind faith. (page 6)

Perhaps, of course, blind faith in the promise of philosophy is all that the philosopher has left once he has jettisoned God. But that he has identified this basic fear of the unknown (the ‘darkest of all things’ noted my then 11 year old son) as the primal human concern is fascinating. Ferry notes that:

All philosophies, however divergent they may sometimes be in the answers they bring, promise us an escape from primitive fears. They possess in common with religions the conviction that anguish prevents us from leading good lives; it stops us not only from being happy, but also from being free. (page 10)

If philosophy and religion are heading the same direction, then, why jettison religion in general and Christianity in particular? Ferry is honest in his answer. He rejects Christianity for two reasons.

First and foremost, because the promise… – that we are immortal and will encounter our loved ones after our own biological demise – is too good to be true. (11)

That calls for its own response, but I want to set that aside to look at his second reason.

Similarly hard to believe is the image of a God who acts as a father to his children. How can one reconcile this with the appalling massacres and misfortunes which overwhelm humanity…. (11)

With this Ferry dismisses Christianity as being insufficiently satisfying. But what, one might ask, do we put in its place? Whatever philosophical salvation is proposed as an alternative must still deal with the “appalling massacres and misfortunes which overwhelm humanity”. How do these philosophies deal with such realities?

I’m no philosopher (which is why I’m reading this book). But it seems to me that that which appalls us is either purposeful and therefore meaningful, or random and therefore meaningless. One either faces a universe that has no concern for him and in fact is tilted toward his destruction, or one faces a universe in which there is a God who, however mysteriously, guides events toward an end which is good. One does not escape the misfortunes by eliminating God from the answer.

I’m well aware that bringing God into the picture creates hard, hard questions. I can’t explain a God, a Father as Ferry correctly notes, who would permit the atrocities and horrors common in this world. But neither can I adequately explain why those horrors are not more common, why life itself exists at all, or why philosophers have the space and time and breath to contemplate death and the rejection of God. I don’t know God’s reasons for permitting evil or for raining good down upon us.

But, it seems to me, that it is not blind faith that convinces the Christian that Christianity is right. Ferry cannot see it, but it may be that the most satisfying explanation for the good and bad in the world is found in a purposeful God who is bringing redemption to a broken world. A God who has not remained distant from that world, but who himself entered into its suffering.

So, if death spares me over ’til another year I intend to try to understand the answers others posit. But I remain convinced that that philosophy which allows us both happiness and freedom is in fact NOT too good to be true.