Thursday, July 24, 2008

Love & Death

I began reading Forrest Church's newest book, Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, during an unusually intense period in the middle of July when I was called on to write and officiate at two memorial services in the span of four days. One memorial service was for a founding member and patriarch of the congregation I serve. Without the insights of Church's book, my ministry to these families and the congregation I serve would have been diminished.

I remember the precise moment that I learned of Forrest Church's original diagnosis with esophogeal cancer. I was at a meeting of the UUMA Executive Committee in Essex, MA in the Autumn of 2006. During a break we passed around the pastoral letter he had sent to his congregation. It was a perfect letter. Out of his own catastrophic news he wrote in such a way that ministered to them and instructed them in the ways of life and love. This letter was an example of the kind of ministry to which I've always and will always aspire.

I've always admired Forrest Church. At age 18 and 19 I read everything of his that I could find in print: The Devil & Dr. Church, Entertaining Angels, The Seven Deadly Virtues, as well as, A Chosen Faith and Church's anthology of essential writings by Paul Tillich. Remarkably, all of these were easily found on the shelves of the public library in Wayland, MA.

When I was 20 I became fascinated with Thomas Jefferson and decided that I would write my undergraduate thesis on the Jefferson Bible. This was before I discovered that Forrest Church had already written definitively on this precise subject in his 1974 Harvard Divinity School thesis, "The Gospel of Thomas Jefferson." In the summer of 1998 I visited the HDS library (perhaps in anticipation of the three years of daily visits to the library that would commence a year later) and a helpful librarian was kind enough to grant me access to his thesis. Seeking originality, I switched my topic and wrote about Jefferson's understanding of religious freedom. I was privately delighted when Church's 2007 book, So Help Me God, offered similar conclusions to the ones I had written about almost a decade earlier.

While an interest in the religion of the Founding Fathers is what may have originally drawn me to Forrest Church, it was the depth of his theology that made me admire him.

One of my colleagues told me that he plans to buy 100 copies of Love & Death to give to his parishioners who struggle with mortality, grief, and loss. I will soon place my own order for multiple copies with Beacon Press for exactly this same reason.

In this, presumably his final book, Church leaves us all with an exquisite gift. His instructions on living well and dying well ("to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for") are a challenge that I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to live up to.

Even his pithy aphorisms, such as, "Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are," resist becoming trite. It doesn't hurt that this book is absolutely alive with gorgeous imagery and language. Windows are "pellucid." Our souls "become part of the heavenly pleroma." Our love continues as a "luminous catena." Or, marvel at the beauty of a sentence such as this: "We may finally each die alone, but even to the extent that we are islands, which is very slight indeed, we are each part of an archipelago."

After finishing this book I felt as though I had been given a remarkable gift, a gift that I will doubtlessly pass on many times. It has already blessed my ministry. It will continue to bless the lives of many.

If you are interested in other books I have read this year, click here.