Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mortality (Let's Just Admit This is Part I)

An anecdote from sometime in 2002: I was living in Chicago at the time, in my first year of grad school. One afternoon, I made one of my frequent stops at the downtown Borders Books (r.i.p.), which was this 3 story building of books and music that drew me in not only because I love books and music but also because there weren't that many places downtown with public restrooms (for full disclosure).

I don't know which reason drew me in that afternoon, but I do remember riding the escalator and as I reached the top, I saw one of those cardboard displays (which I later learned as a Barnes & Noble bookseller are called "dumps" by the professionals) with a new release. The title of the book was Where Was God on 9/11?

At that moment, I became an angry, muttering person, the sort you try not to sit next to on the bus.

Where was God on 9/11? Why is this even a question? Why all the angst about how God could have possibly allowed this to happen? Are the people asking this also asking where was God in violent conflicts in Central and South America? Were they asking about the presence of God in the violent conflicts in Ireland? How about any violent conflict you can think of?

I doubted that the author---or the audience for the book---were thinking about any of this. I assumed (and, okay, I never looked any closer at the book, so I could be wrong) that this was a crisis of faith because, horrors of horrors, this happened to the United States of America. How could God let this happen to America? As if horrific things couldn't (or don't) happen on American soil. It seemed, to me, to be the most absurd, self-absorbed question we could ask.

I said in my muttering, "God was where God always is: with the brokenhearted, with the weak, with the hurting, with the dying."

I think it is symptomatic of our general avoidance of mortality, a denial that we're all going to die, that we're fragile and death can come at any time, any place. Yes, 9/11 was an especially large and horrific event. But horrific events happen all over the world and those events don't seem to create crises of faith, at least not for American Christians.

Frankly, I was appalled at American Christians' lack of faith, that because something happened to us suddenly meant God was gone.

I relate this story because I've been thinking a lot about this "why me?" attitude, not so much because I have it---I'm just as likely to ask how sudden death comes to someone else instead of me---but because early in February, just before the beginning of lent, my cardiologist was telling me about a recent CT of my heart. He said everything with the heart looked fine.


"You have a mass on your pancreas." They found it just by accident, caught a glimpse of it while looking at my heart.

When Ash Wednesday came up right after that, I was already ahead of the game. Remember I was dust? I was all over that.

Now, well into lent, I can tell you that this mass is showing no signs of cancer, which is obviously a huge relief. (I'm amused by the few people who, now with this news, are telling me "I'm so glad, because pancreatic cancer is so awful," assuming that I didn't know that already . . .) I will still have to have the mass removed and it's going to be a fairly major surgery, but there's also good reason to believe that's all going to be okay, too.

So, anyway, mortality. For about a week there, I had quit thinking about my 50th birthday still a few months away. I'd started thinking about who might be able to take care of my cat. I started thinking about my library of books and who might want some of them. I wasn't asking, "why me?" I may as well ask why I'm blond, or so it seems to me. I was asking, "if I'm dying, how do I do this?"

(True confession: I started posting pieces of my abandoned theological memoir on Ash Wednesday because I wasn't yet ready to write about having a mass on my pancreas. It was a good replacement activity.)

Then, on the first Sunday in lent, we had this Gospel reading: 

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ [Luke 13:1-5, NRSV]

This has always been a puzzling passage for me. I was disturbed by Jesus' words, "unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

Hey, Jesus, that doesn't sound all that grace-full.

But as I pondered that passage after church that Sunday, I felt it had something to do with my own current brush with mortality. I felt it had something to do with another saying of Jesus, how the rain falls on the good and the evil, but it was that "unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did" that had me troubled.

Now, for those more exegetically inclined, I'll first say what follows is completely personal. I didn't do any word studies in the Greek, and I admit I'm curious about what word is being translated as "perish," which seems like a particular euphemism for "die." I can't tell if the NRSV translators got squeamish about the word "die" or if there is some other nuance to "perish" that bears further investigation.

What I do know is that the word "repent" is from the Greek, metanoia, which literally means "change mind" (meta, as in metamorphosis---change shape, noia as in paranoia---beyond or beside mind). So to substitute that with the common, modern understanding of "repent" to mean "feel really badly for sins," we have "Unless you change your mind . . "

Change your mind about what, in this instance? Jesus was trying to tell the crowd that the people who died that they didn't die because they were worse people than anyone else, so I suppose it could be that Jesus was telling them, "unless you change your mind about bad things only happening to bad people . . . "

Okay, but this "you will perish just like they did" business. So how did these people die? They were murdered, apparently ins some kind of ritual sacrifice. Or a tower fell on them. This must have been a shocking way to die, surprising, caught unawares.

So in the Neil Ellis Orts paraphrase, I decided, I'd say, "Unless you change your mind about there being some sort of punishment involved when bad things happen to you, you're going to die just as shocked, surprised, and caught unawares as those Galileans."

This seemed, if not a universal paraphrase for that passage, it seemed to help me in my current circumstance. I resolved at that moment to change whatever part of my mind might be looking for a sin or other evil that accounted for this mass on my pancreas. If I was dying, I would face it with a surety that we all die, that we don't get to pick how we die, and that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God (to steal from St. Paul).

Of course, facing our mortality isn't so neat, easy, and clean as all that. But this story from Luke now helps me, reminds me that death is not surprising, there's no reason to think something terrible couldn't happen to any one of us. And if that is disquieting, I'm sorry. But I believe it to be true, even as I believe it to be true that God remains with us, in our fears, in our suffering, in our dying.

This episode---and let's face it, a big surgery suggests it isn't over, only slightly rosier than first imagined---has me thinking about much more. I believe these are the things I'll spend the rest of lent reflecting upon.

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful as always, Neil. Thank you for sharing this.