Welcome to this edition of Steve the Builder. It’s been a while since I’ve done a podcast so I thought I’d post up a short one to let everyone know what has been happening. I also didn’t want to have my last podcast series be the one on capital punishment. What began as a single podcast grew into eight. It was a difficult series that consumed a lot of time during those weeks because I thought it was too important to gloss over the issues. And it has elicited a lot of responses from both sides.
So, a few weeks ago I drove to northern Arizona and picked up my parents to bring them down to Phoenix. My Dad has had three bypass operations, his first was at age 51. He is 80 and his cardiologist said his EKG didn’t look good. So I brought them to the Valley for my Father’s heart procedure.
My Dad is an “old school man”. When he says anything about anything that most modern emo people would consider worthy of hours of pithy discussion over a venti frappucino carmel latte, you have to listen carefully then read between the lines and then fill in the blanks. As we drove down the mountain roads he made small talk about football, basketball, the economy, the weather. Interspersed between his running commentary on the mundane he talked about his surgery.
“I really don’t want to have this done but I figure I should at least find out what’s going on” means: “I know this might be it.”
At one point I told him our priest Fr. Damian said he would be willing to come to the hospital and say some prayers before he went in for surgery… if he wanted him to. He’d met Fr. Damian at my ordination to the subdiaconate, and the first time he has been in a Church in probably 65 years or more. Dad said, “I’d really like that, thank you.” Translation: “I know I could die on the table. I’m scared.”
We went to the hospital this morning and they took Dad in to prep him. Fr. Damian came and talked with my Mom (who raised us kids Roman Catholic by herself) then we all went in together for the short visiting time they allow before the surgery. After a few minutes I said, “We’ll go to the waiting room for a while and leave you guys alone for a bit.” We left Fr. Damian and Dad alone in the room and waited. About twenty minutes later Fr. Damian came out and said, “Steven, your dad wants to be baptized and he wants you to be there.”
I went into the pre-op room and assisted Fr. Damian with the baptism of my Father who 40 years before made fun of me mercilessly about my faith. When we finished the baptism my Dad looked at me and said, “I love you.” I said, “I love you too, Dad…I’ve been praying for this for a long time.” He had tears in his eyes. He said, “I know.”
We brought my wife and daughter and Mom into his room. Fr. Damian, my wife, daughter and I sang “As Many as Have Been Baptized into Christ” for him. Then they took him away.
The procedure went well. As they wheeled my Dad to post-op he said, “They told me it looks good.” and I said, “Yeah…now you’ll have to make good on all those deals you made with God.” Dad grinned.
So, once again the theme of death seems to come to the forefront after my Father’s brush with his mortality.
Today I have an internet friend who is in the hospital fighting for his life. Inside of a couple weeks what was pain in his legs was discovered to be a body riddled with tumors.
Today a client that I’ve known for years is trying to decide whether or not to finish his last round of chemo-with-no-guarantees. He retired a multi-millionaire and a couple months later found out he had an incurable cancer and 6 months to live. I called him a few weeks ago and asked how he was doing and he said, “Not too bad for a chemistry experiment.”
Last week I found another friend who runs the Christian homeless shelter/rehab sitting in his van in our Church parking lot at 8 pm with what looked like a heart attack. I took him to the emergency room. He’s now in a nursing home perhaps with advanced cancer, a brain aneurism and heart problems.
Most of us could multiply such stories and the irony of timing, mystery of circumstances and depth of tragedy. Such is life. Such is death.
Outside of putting one’s self purposefully in harms way, how we live seems to have little bearing on what kills us and when. Neither life nor death is fair. Bacon eating smokers and drinkers live to be 100, vegan runners die at 30. The randomness of how people die and from what has no discernible relationship to their relative morality, type of faith or religion, philosophy or “niceness”. Trekkies may give you Mr. Spock’s Vulcan blessing “Live long and prosper”, but in the end it is merely an incantation, much like “Have a nice day”, or even “God bless you”. In the end well wishes are shorthand for our unarticulated acknowledgement of the fact that people die young and destitute, the days are fraught with evil, and the need for control outside of ourselves of a hostile cosmos that seems to be hell-bent on killing us off in more random, surprising and horrific ways than six sequels of “Saw”.
The reality is, a Christian’s life may or may not be as moral or healthy or happy or even “blessed” as the atheist’s. Prosperity gospel evangelism ultimately fails because it does not correspond to any reality. Any teaching based on God “one upping” non-Christian’s lifestyles that lack irony, tragedy and poverty is doomed to attract only the deluded and desperate, and can only end in either deeper delusion and ultimately in despondency. The Christian Gospel requires a life of self restraint, sanctity and love for one’s neighbor, but the Gospel does not claim that any of it is a talisman against the cosmic assault on our bodies and souls, much less our jobs, families and stock portfolios. The Christian is not called to overcome life or circumstances, but himself. He is not called to live long and prosper, but to live well and be content in any state. He is not called to have a nice day that encounters no evil or even inconvenience, but as we pray in Psalm 89 of the First Hour, to offer up all days wherein we saw evil to God with thanksgiving. And in the end the stories told in the four Gospels point us to God’s participation in the randomness of life in the fallen order, and the ultimate injustice of death.
In the end, for all of us death is more real than life. Life is like the water the fish swim in. We don’t think much about it unless something points us to our frailty, powerlessness and mortality. A split second encounter with death can remove the cumulative neglect and distractions of an entire 80 years of life. Life can be hypnotic, but death is the snap of the fingers that brings us out of all self made illusions.
In the end, the Gospel is about the overcoming of the power of death so that we may live without the illusion that a “good life” has any correspondence to a “life well lived”. A life well lived is one lived without fear. It is a life lived in faith that no matter what life does to us, good or evil, and no matter how or when we die in the end as Julian of Norwich said, all will be well, all will be well. A death well died is the final witness to whether we lived well or just merely lived good.