The diagnosis came like a bolt from the blue. I had spent my whole adult life being disgustingly healthy, so I took for granted that a routine doctor visit would be just that. Instead I found myself confronted by the imminent prospect of two potentially life-threatening surgeries. The ball began rolling in early July and has challenged me to the core of my being. Concerns were shaken to the extent that I lost all interest in the General Convention and its outcomes this past summer, I was now dealing with something far more pressing — issues of my life and death. The prospect of not surviving the surgery sharpened my perceptions and priorities.
Since being ordained in my early twenties, priesthood has meant that I have regularly been involved with death and dying. Deathbeds, accident victims, funerals, and hours spent with those grieving have been part of life’s warp and woof. Premature babies, suicides, and WWII veterans, as well as the centenarian son of a Confederate officer, are among those whose final moments I have shared. Occasionally I have been the target of vicious verbal abuse from mourners who are livid with God.
However, I discovered in the summer that somehow I had thought mortality was OK for other people, but had kidded myself that it was different for me.
I had thought my theology was faithful and robust when, in reality, it had become far too much of an intellectual exercise. I had been burying my head in the sand. It dawned on me that being ordained young had given me more than enough time to acquire a certain priestly persona with which I had shielded my own soul. It is easy to hide behind a clerical collar. The last great enemy has now shattered my defenses.
Reaching threescore years and ten should have been evidence that I was skating on the edge, but I didn’t see it that way, until that routine visit with the physician opened a spiritual Pandora’s Box of gargantuan dimensions. A blockage in my carotid artery was the initial piece of evidence that all was not right; a vascular surgeon got drawn in, then he sought reinforcements in the person of a cardiologist. Each had worse news than the last. Within days the carotid artery seemed small potatoes, for my heart was smothered in the same kind of plaque. As I waited for triple bypass surgery, to be followed by vascular work on my neck, terror pushed my blood pressure off the chart.
On August 4th, as I was wheeled toward the operating room, I wondered if this was my last glimpse of earthly life. Prayer had been a struggle, my communication with God little more than incoherent gasps. Despite endless reassurances from medical folks and all sorts of others, I was far from sure I would come out of it alive. Even as anesthetics were administered I appreciated that I wasn’t ready. How had I been so stupid not to prepare myself for what ultimately would be inevitable?
The next thing I knew I was wrestling back to consciousness. My torso ached, but someone was assuring me surgery had been a success, and my re-worked heart was beating a tattoo. The trauma was not over as certain complications made work on the carotid surgery far more urgent than the doctors would have liked. I came home physically weak, drained, and mentally jangled. I was deeply grateful to God for sparing me, but remained emotionally raw, spiritually adrift, and still scared to death. I wondered what sort of half-baked priest I actually was.
Ultimately the fog cleared, and as it did so I could see God’s hand in all that had happened, but I had (and still have) a lot of inner work to do. My task is to listen humbly, learn, and pray. Ours is a death-denying culture, and palpably I am as infected by its virus as much as anyone, yet this is our mission field. In many respects I had surrendered to the North American tendency to smother what is difficult with lashings of saccharine sentimentality. The pastor’s temptation is to soft-pedal hard truths, and thereby deceiving ourselves that we are communicating when in truth we are watering the message down.
At seminary I encountered the Continental New Testament scholar, Oscar Cullmann; after half a century his words have again grabbed my attention. Cullmann was born in Strasbourg, then a German city. The Great War was fought in Strasbourg’s backyard, so that when the armistice was signed, Strasbourg and he became French. Such bloody formative years left their mark
Death in itself is not beautiful, not even the death of Jesus … Whoever paints a pretty death can paint no resurrection. Whoever has not grasped the horror or death cannot join Paul in the hymn of victory: Death is swallowed up — in victory. (Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead, p. 34)
I suspect Cullmann is saying something like “Don’t Disnify Christianity.” Downplay the horror of death, even Christ’s death, and we muffle the shout of “Victory!” The Cross is about death’s sting being drawn, but it is as we steel ourselves to look Christ clearly in the eye and absorb the benefits of his death and resurrection that our hearts and souls are readied for what lies ahead, and we have the capacity, using the language of old, “to make a good death.”
I have been told that all this will make me a better pastor, but as I journey toward the Celestial City I want to shed more of the characteristics of the one whom John Bunyan called Mr. Feeble-mind. During these few months I have been mining the sayings of those who have walked this way before us. St. Augustine of Hippo encourages us to prepare ourselves by saying that in Christ’s presence: “We shall rest, we shall see, we shall love, we shall praise.”
I am making confession perhaps because I am ashamed of myself. Yet I have written this because I have a shrewd sense that other ordained leaders grapple with similar misgivings. It is not the sort of issue we would feel comfortable raising at a clergy meeting, perhaps because it seems to carry with it the aroma of unbelief. I sense there are others in the same boat. The truth is that we walk by faith and not by sight, so perhaps it is not easy to see the footsteps of the one who walked the way of the Cross for us — however we can support one another.