In This Episode << SLIDE LEFT TO SEE ADDITIONAL SEGMENTS
Read more of Bob Abernethy’s interview with Reverend Forrest Church:
Q: There came a day in 2006 when you received a call from your physician. Tell me the story.
A: He called right after I’d had a barium esophagram and said, “Bad news. It looks like you have inoperable esophageal cancer.” I asked him how long. He said, “Months, and probably a few. We’ll try to make you comfortable.” My wife was just taking off that very day for India, and my first major task was to make sure she kept her life going while I was helping to keep mine from falling apart. For about three weeks I thought I had three months to live. It soon became clear that they could operate. They did. They operated successfully, and then I had a reprieve before the cancer came back again in February of 2008 in an incurable form.
Q: What’s your outlook now?
A: The treatment has been remarkably successful. I’m on an experimental treatment, and I’m being gifted a month at a time and rejoicing in that. But eventually the treatment will lose its valance, and the barbarians will storm the gate.
Q: How long do you think you have?
A: I’ve stopped guessing. I’ve predicted my demise too often and too early to continue to do so. So I will just accept whatever comes. I would guess less than a year. If I’m lucky — I’m already lucky — this eventually will stop working, this treatment, and then the cancer — I’ve got cancer in my lungs and in my liver, and it will quickly spread, and then I will not be resistant to it.
Q: You have written about your surprising acceptance of what has happened.
A: It was right after my wife went away for three days. I sat down with my closest friends and with Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary and just to sort of test this acceptance. I didn’t bargain. I didn’t get angry. I was surprised to go almost directly to acceptance. I skipped disbelief and anger and shock and resentment. And I tested that because I was unsure of it, whether I was just hiding myself in a pink cloud. Every minister spends a lifetime preparing to ace the death test. I mean, that’s what we do. We can’t fail that test, having gone through with so many others. It would cast a shadow back on his or her ministry if he or she were not able to embrace death and welcome it as an actual part of living as much as one has encouraged one’s parishioners to do. But I did discover something that I hadn’t really recognized before, and at least I think it works in some cases. I’ve always been amazed that some people, regardless of how physically ill they are, seem to go gentle into that good night and some seem to just fight bitterly all the way. And there’s some courage in the fighting. I understand that. But it came to me that there may be a difference. All of us die in the middle of our story. There may be a difference, however, between having ongoing business, which we all have, and having unfinished business. And we have unfinished business, and each person knows what it is in his or her life. The one thing you’ve postponed doing, waiting for the right time. Whatever it happens to be, if you’re given a terminal sentence, you do not have time to finish your unfinished business, and that casts a pall of regret over your life. And so your final days are lived regretting what you have not done, or have not stopped doing in some cases, and not freeing you to embrace the past, say yes to it, and then live fully in the present in a way that you really are not ever able to do before.
Q: That’s what’s happening to you now?
A: That’s what’s happening to me, and this is something I’ve preached on. It’s a Buddhist notion, in many ways. I call it having nostalgia for the present, looking forward to the present, not being caught up in things we can’t do anything about. But when you’re living in the rush of life it’s very, very difficult actually spiritually to focus on that present. When you are given a terminal illness and you are not regretful of your past, so that you can embrace it and say yes to it, then you can live in each day and fill it with all of its amplitude, all of its glory, and you can celebrate what is, not mourn what isn’t.
Q: Suppose you do have a lot of regrets a lot of unfinished business. What then? What do you do?
A: Well, I have seen some amazing two-minute drills — people who have, during their last months, just worked all out to reconcile with their children, to do the things that they need to do to make peace with life, to make peace with God, and who have pulled it off. I mean, these are spectacular acts of courage. The level of difficulty of the dive is high, however. You don’t have much time, and it does mean that you are concentrating your whole life on redeeming that which is past, rather than moving gently forward and embracingly into the next chapter.
Q: What has been the role of God in all this experience?
A: Well, God is what sustains me. I am connected umbilically, I feel, with that grace and power. It’s not an omnipotent God. God didn’t do this to me. God doesn’t throw babies out of third-story windows or cause tsunamis. But God is that which is greater than all and present in each. And when that which is present in you relates to that which is present in all, you are sustained. You are billowed by the ocean of divinity, and you are made safe. There’s a great degree of safety in that being a part of, rather than being apart from.
Q: As a Unitarian Universalist, what was your idea of God in years past, and how did that evolve or change?
A: I began believing in a kind of abstract God. It was an intellectual — it was a head-trip God. I was closer to a Jeffersonian Unitarian than I was to an Emersonian Unitarian. It was much more of a scientific entrée. I divided the rational from the irrational. It was a kind of a search and destroy mission where I was taking the butterfly and pinning it on the board and examining it very carefully and deciding that it was very beautiful, but it doesn’t fly. And over time, partly through crises in my own life, very much through sitting by my parishioners at their bedsides, and through my father’s death, I began to sense that this moved from my head to my heart. And I began to believe that I — in some ways, without God there is nothing. I did not — as I said many times, God is not God’s name. It’s our name for that which is greater than all, and yet present in each. It’s our construct. It’s our symbol. But it’s an arrow pointing toward a reality that is invested in us.
Q: Is God, for you, a person?
A: I am a person, so I relate to the personal part of God’s amplitude. God is so much more than a person. Otherwise, God becomes an idol. Sometimes I believe that we’re divided between fundamentalists of the left and the fundamentalists of the right, and the fundamentalists of the left or the right set up a tiny, little God on their altar and worship it. And the fundamentalists of the left torch that God and throw it down and say there is no God. I ask people to tell me a little about the God they believe in, because I probably don’t believe in him, either. I believe in something that’s much more capacious, much more mysterious, something like Rudolph Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans — the tremendous and fearful, powerful, fascinating mystery.
Q: How did that move from an intellectual sense of God to one that was very open to mystery affect your reaction to your condition?
A: I have long believed that religion itself is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. We are the religious animal. We asked, “Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? What is life’s meaning? What is life’s purpose?” Now, we don’t always come out with religious answers. But these are religious questions we ask. We’re not the animal with advanced tools or advanced language. We’re the religious animal, and so at some point death requires our search for meaning. Without death, we would not have to search for meaning, and we would not have to search for purpose. My own sense of the purpose of life, it’s to live in such a way that your lives will prove to be worth dying for. And that puts an enormous moral, ethical impetus behind our work in this world. I take it one world at a time. I’m agnostic about the afterlife. I haven’t gone there. It could not be, though, any stranger than this. There’s no afterlife that could be stranger than life itself. And we need, first and foremost, even as we’re dying, to celebrate the miracle of this day.
Q: I want to take you back just a moment to this question of dealing with unfinished business. You have a reference in your book to those sad words, “if only.”
A: The two saddest words in the English language are “if only,” and they ring with the most poignancy at a time when a person gets a word that he or she has a terminal illness. If only I had stopped drinking. If only I had dared to change careers when I could. If only I had reconciled with my father when I had a chance. Those “if only” questions which cannot easily or even practicably be answered in the last innings of one’s life cast a pall over those days and lead to an enormous feeling of regret.
Q: How then do you make up for it?
A: There are some things you cannot make up for. There are some things that therapy over a lifetime helps you to make up for. What you try to do is to jar yourself into the moment if you possibly can, to take your regrets and your expectation and try to let go of them so that if you’ve blown that, don’t blow this. You still have so much time. In my case, when I was talking about not having unfinished business, my wife quickly pointed out to me, “Well, you may not have unfinished business, Forrest. But your children have unfinished business, and I have unfinished business, and let’s get down to it.” I realized this wasn’t about my death. This was our death, and that focused me in on them, on their needs, on our shared journey, and all of a sudden life was filled with intrigue and wonder and challenge, but a different challenge than I had imagined.
Q: What did you say to your children, and what did you invite them to say to you?
A: Well, each one is different. We have four children, and each child had a different set of issues. But the one thing I learned was that I couldn’t make this right for them. One of my jobs in life is, I’ve always felt, to make things right, to make things work, to make them happy. I couldn’t do that. So I had to listen to their pain. I had to let them express it. I still have to do that, although we’ve now, since I’ve had these dual six-month diagnoses, we’re getting pretty good at circling the wagons and lighting the campfires and crying together and then singing the old songs.
Q: A lot of crying?
A: There was a lot of crying, often the crying ignited in me from them. Again, I didn’t want my death to be a bother to people, and that was just simply a wrong call. I wanted everything to just go on as if nothing were happening. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there’s a truth to it as well. Particularly around my family. Wanted the house to be happy. House wasn’t going to be happy. It’s one thing for me to make my peace with God and leave. It’s another thing for my children or my wife to be abandoned, and that actually was where I had my growing, in letting them call the shots, letting them let me know what they needed when they needed it and responding to their needs with listening more than with talking. I’ve always talked my way through and out of things. This was a time to listen, embrace, and say I’m so sorry, and that brought them around to the point that now they are, in a certain way, embracing my death and have learned from my death, even as I hope they have learned from my life.
Q: You referred to your late father and indicated you wished you had been able to reconcile with him?
A: I did reconcile with him in the early ’70s. When he ran for president in 1976, I took off six months from school and campaigned for him. So my reconciliation with him — he was very much against the Vietnam War, but I didn’t believe that he’d gone far enough, and I was a flaming radical in the late 1960s and I basically washed my hands of my father and his establishment corruption. We had made complete peace by the ’70s. He died in 1984. So that wasn’t the issue. He had always said, “I wish I were just walking down the road and struck in the middle of a thought and struck by a heart attack and died.” He had had cancer when he was 25 and I was two months old and given himself only three months to live. So, I began my life in a bassinet of cancer. But this made him commit himself to living his life as fully, richly, and quickly as he could. He did die young. He died at 59. That’s when I was diagnosed with my own cancer, and I felt that was clearly going to be the end of the story. But I did notice something about his — he had three months, and it was a period for him of reconciliation with his own lack of confidence in his legacy. He believed that once you were out of office and once you were out of power, you were instantly forgotten, and those three months were an opportunity to just celebrate him. And the one gift of a terminal illness that is given to us which is not given to someone who is struck down by a stroke or struck down a heart attack and does not come back to life is that we are given the opportunity to receive all of this love, and we’re given the opportunity to return all of this love, and that’s why these months can be the most precious months of one’s life.
Q: You have made great use of these months. You have been very productive and you’ve put down on paper your deepest beliefs. Let’s talk about some of those.
A: In a way, love and death allowed me to write a coda to my theology, to my lifelong belief that love and death interwoven were the heartstrings of religion. I do have a mantra that I’ve come to live by over the past three years, and it’s served me very well. It’s “Do what you can, want what you have, and be who you are.” Doing what you can is doing all you can. It’s not just, you know, muckin’ by, but it’s not trying to do more than you can, stretching yourself out and forcing you into a failure. Wanting what you have is to recognize that we tend to only want things that we don’t have. It’s like we’re looking out through a lightly stained glass window with all sorts of different projects, our vocational and avocational and parent and children projects, and then our health is down there. But you never try to look through the glass that says “health” until it clouds over. Then we push our nose right up against it, and all we can see is the darkness in the glass, and our whole world goes dark. If we back up from it and say, “I want friends who love me. I want a family who’s helping me. I want the sun to come up, and I want the day to be beautiful.” All of these things, all those prayers get answered, and if you want what you have, finally you come around to saying, “I wouldn’t be appreciating all of these things with nearly the same intensity if this one pane had not gotten dark.” And then to be who you are, probably the hardest of all, is not to try to fake your existence. It is to accept, embrace who God has made you. Each one of us unique, each one of us with flaws and gifts, and each one of us special, and then to take that and return it to the world in such a way that you will live your life in such a way that it will prove to be worth dying for.
Q: You referred to the idea of getting permission to die. What does that mean?
A: Well, there is a sense that I have gotten often from deathbeds when I was in my parish, my parsonage role — that people feel that they’re failing their loved ones when they die. And I can understand that. The father is abandoning his family, let’s say, or a mother is abandoning her children. And there is this sense that they have to hang on, that death is a defeat, and as long as everyone is telling them, “You can make it. Don’t — you can beat this,” if a kind of lie surrounds the proceedings, then when the person is not making it and is not beating it, she’s going to feel a failure and she’s going to feel that she’s failed the people who said, “You’re going to make it” — her children. So the children have an obligation and the spouses have an obligation, when the time comes, to say, “It’s okay. We’re ready for you to go. We love you. We thank you for everything you’ve done.” And then, in a way, giving death becomes like giving birth. It’s “You’re getting closer. We’re holding hands. You’re going to make it. It’s beautiful. You’re doing great.” That’s the way when my father-in-law died, my wife and her mother basically were coaches to him, holding his hand and urging him onward and telling him that it was going to be okay, that he was almost there. He’s really going to do it. That’s giving permission for people to die, and then they can do it without their last thought being, “I have failed my family” or “I have failed my loved ones.”
Q: You have expressed an idea about talking to your children as the end came.
A: In its very essence, it is to shut up and just listen, to hear where they are coming from, what their needs are, not to try to make things that aren’t right for them prematurely right. Let them express themselves. Let them work it through and embrace wherever they are, and then you move slowly from there. It’s not a one-evening proposition. And different of the children will respond in different ways. Different of them will have much more expressed needs. Others will have to be sort of sought out and tell me what you really feel. You need to almost be direct with them.
Q: Can you give an example of how that works?
A: Well, with one of my children, it was clear that she was enormously bereft, and I was trying to make her feel better. And before I could make her feel better, I had to allow her to feel worse. And I had to allow her to express her sense of abandonment, and her sense of loss and her sense of fear. And we did that kind of in a dance. But when we came through the dance, she came up to me one day and she said, “By the way, Dad, don’t talk about this any more, about us, because I’m now just fine with this. I think you’re done a wonderful job.” And it wasn’t I who did the wonderful job. It was she who did the wonderful job working it through.
Q: Back to the core beliefs you’ve identified and put down. You said the secret of it all is “it’s not about me.”
A: It’s not about me. That’s right. We stand in our own light. Not only that, when we get days in light we forget, like, what a shadow we might be casting. We somehow have to recognize that self-consciousness and consciousness are opposites. To the extent that we’re self-conscious, self-absorbed, we cannot be conscious of the world around us, of God, of our neighbors, and believing that Jesus’ two great commandments, to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, are the hearthstone of my faith and I have got to get out of the way of that if I’m able to perform those functions. Fortunately for a minister, it’s a little bit easier because whenever we get too caught up in our own petty grievances, or our own petty resentments, or disappointments, or failures, the window blows open and death blows through and blows all the detritus off of our plate, and we encounter that which really matters, and we are in the bosom of a family that is grieving, and trying to come together, and trying to make sense of what life is and what death is, and all these little things that are nagging at us just become almost embarrassments. They just disappear from the plate.
Q: There’s another sentence that you wrote: The greatest of all truths, you said, is that love never dies.
A: Well, the greatest of all truths is that love never dies. I’m not certain about life. Life may go on forever and may not. I don’t know about the afterlife. I know that love is immortal, that every act of love we perform in this life is carried on almost like a little patina of pearls. It’s carried on into another life and passed on into another life so that centuries from now, not named with our name, not signed with our signature, but initiated by us and carried on through our heirs, the dependent web of being which we’re a part, this network of neighbors and lovers and strangers, the love carries, and that’s the work of religion. The work of religion is to make sure that the love carries more strongly and further than the division and the hate, and there is the danger of religion — that we will end up defining ourselves against rather than defining ourselves with. But I do believe that love never dies, and that is the gift that one can give immediately, of course, most importantly, to one’s family and close friends. But it spreads far beyond that.
Q: Is that what you mean when you speak about love after death?
A: There is love after death. I’m not certain about life after. There’s some kind of life. I’m just not certain that it’s a personalized life. We came from the cosmos. We return to the cosmos. But the thing that we ought to be amazed about — the odds against our being here are just infinitesimal, just infinitesimal. You have to go back not just to the right egg and the right sperms of your parents. You have to go back all the way through history. None of our grandparents and great-grandparents going on died before puberty. None of them died in the Great Plague. If you go back to the 11th or 12th century, most of us have 2.5 million ancestors, all of who made it and connected at the right time. Then you go back beyond that to the pre-human ancestors and the urparamecium and then to the pinball of stars back to the Big Bang, and we’re kinetically and genetically connected to everything that preceded us. The universe was pregnant with us when it was born. The odds against this are staggering. And so we tend to miss it when we say, what did I do to deserve this? Well, we didn’t do anything to deserve being alive. With life comes the certitude, the promise of death, and we need to embrace that with the same kind of celebration, almost, that we embrace our birth.
Q: For traditional Christians beliefs in the afterlife, eternal life with God, heaven — these are very, very important beliefs and give people close to death great comfort. What is it that gives you great comfort?
A: I do believe I came from God and that I shall return to God. It’s just that the definitions of heaven I received and hear about almost seem like punishment for good behavior — an eternity of anything to me is frightening almost. I see eternity as a depth in time, not a length of time. I see us connecting spiritually within the temple zone but in an eternal trench, as it were, that can get us deep or help us soar, and that is available to me every minute I live. I have no idea what happens after we die. It cannot be stranger than this. Being alive is too strange for words. So I won’t be the least bit surprised if all of a sudden everything is topsy-turvy and I’m in a new world. But I can promise you it won’t be the world that is predicted. And the other thing I’m concerned about would be afterlife. I see a lot of religion as being a life-defining exercise. It’s almost as if we put this world down and this life down in order to live forever in one that is promised to us, and that leads us away from the love to God and love to neighbor injunctions. It leads us away from our ethical imperative, from expressing our ultimate concerns in ways that are redemptive in this world and in our larger neighborhood. And so I go with Henry David Thoreau, who when he was asked about the afterlife said, “Madam, I prefer to take it one life at a time.”
Q: Let’s talk again about the relationship between love and death.
A: The opposite of love is not death. It is fear. Fear is what armors our hearts. If our hearts are armored, they’ll never be broken. We do not have to worry as much about grief and pain at a time of loss and a terminal illness or even betrayal. We don’t have to worry about those things because we have armored our hearts. When you open your heart, you become vulnerable, which means susceptible to being wounded. Grief is in a way a gift because the more we grieve, the more we loved. The more we care, the more we’re hurt, the more we gained in our relationship. And so there’s a ratio between grief and love that can be tampered down by not opening your heart, or it can be extremely painful if you have opened your heart because there’s such a deep sense of loss. But in the balance of time the gain is so much greater than the loss that one can only celebrate the time together, one can only celebrate the love, and the grief becomes an afterthought to the love. But love is grief’s advance party. There’s no question about that.
Q: There’s an undertaker in Michigan I interviewed, Thomas Lynch. He’s a poet, too. He says grief is the tax we pay on loving people.
A: There you go. That’s it. That’s good. That’s a beautiful summation of that, and I have seen so many people get hurt in love and then try to protect themselves against it, and when they protect themselves against love, they protect themselves against the only thing that is worth living for.
Q: You also have some interesting things, I think, to say about visiting in hospitals.
A: It’s amazing how uncomfortable people are in hospitals, understandably. You’re surrounded by death. You feel that you might catch it. You look through all of these doors as a kind of impersonality about the place. You’re afraid you’re going to say the wrong thing, that you will not get it right with the person you’re going to visit. People stay away from their friends for those very reasons. But then what happens is you go into the hospital room and you don’t know how to act, and there’s some very simple tricks. First of all, touch the person that you’re with, because all the touch that they’re getting is invasive. It hurts. Goodness knows, the nurses are trying to do their best and they’re wonderful. But they are hurting you when they touch you. So touch. Also sit down at the level of the person in the bed. Everyone’s looking down at you. You begin to feel like a lab rat or something when you’re in the hospital. And if your friends stand up and look down at you, they become sort of confused with the medical authorities. So that’s another thing. And then simply to open the conversation by, “How are you feeling? How are you feeling spiritually? This must be hard.” Let the person take the lead. But don’t talk about nothing. Let it come out. The worst thing you can say to a person who is clearly dying is, “Don’t worry about it. You’re going to beat this. You’re going to get better.” It’s just like an insult to that person’s living reality. Whereas if you say, “This must be really hard,” they will tell you to what extent it is and to what extent it isn’t. And then they will be connecting with you at a deep, human level. There are fewer occasions in life that we imagine to really connect from one person to another at their very depth. The times of death and dying are among the most precious of those.
Q: And don’t stay too long, you say.
A: And the other thing is don’t stay too long. Don’t prove your love by wearing the poor person out. Five to ten minutes is perfect, enough time for you to bless them and then not to fatigue them.
Q: As you look ahead to your own death, is there anything about either death itself or the immediate time leading up to it that frightens you? Are you afraid?
A: I’m not afraid, because I’m living so much in the present. I’m not afraid of what’s going to happen in the immediate weeks, say, before I die. I’ve seen, however, that it can be brutal, and I anticipate it being painful, being disoriented. I’m not going to live through that before it happens. I do know, and I know this from particularly my experience with my father, but other parishioners, that there is a tendency among some people to disappear into themselves as they go through the final passage, and that involves some pain for all of your loved ones, because you are cutting them off. Perhaps this is natural. It is you’re letting go of your ties so that you can leave more freely when you’re leaving. But it’s something that I’m going to hope not to do. I’m going to hope to hold on to them and remember that they are as important as I am and that this is more painful for them than it is for me. I will be at peace wherever I am, whether I’m in heaven or sleeping eternally in the earth. I will be at peace, and they will be in turmoil, and I pray that I will be able to overcome my own instinct, perhaps, to just let go and hold on to them long enough and well enough that they will recognize my presence and my love even as I’m dying.
Q: You mentioned praying. To whom do you pray, and how do you pray?
A: Every day I pray to God for what I have. I pray to God for my children. I pray to God for giving me– with my parents. I pray to God for the sun coming up. I pray to God for the tasks I have to do, even today when they’re more limited, the limited tasks I’m still able to do. I pray to God for all of those things that I would otherwise take for granted. And once I pray, I know that I will receive — my prayers will come true. I don’t pray for miracles. I don’t pray to cure my incurable cancer. I receive and consecrate each day that I’m given as a gift, and those are the prayers of consecration, and if I’ve done something wrong, which I do every day despite this attempt to live in the present and be always living, I always do things wrong. I ask for forgiveness for that, and part of that is so that I’m able to forgive myself and get back to the program.
Q: When you pray to God, do you have a picture in your head?
A: I don’t have a picture. I have a sense of peace. I’m praying to the deepest part of me and the deepest part of the cosmos, the Creator. I’m just connecting. I’m reaching out, getting outside of myself, getting as far out as possible. I don’t anticipate that there is a little set of headphones up there taking my instructions down and fastening them onto underlings in a cosmic bureaucracy to act on or against. My God doesn’t work that way. It is a sense of being connected to the All, to that which is greater than all, in fact, and present, and age. And that connection is a healing connection because it connects us to ourselves, gives us integrity, gives us peace to our bidding for forgiveness and our confession. It connects us to others through reconciliation. I also pray for people from who I’m anywhere estranged that they will have a good day. I picture their faces in my mind and remind myself that they’re going to die. We’re all mysteriously born and fated to die. The same sun sets on each of our horizons. Truly, we are one. And those moments of oneness are the moments of religious peace for me. And then I pray to be reconciled with or one with God, that the Creator and the cosmos, all three of those things, bring unity and an integrity to me — and they’re very traditional ways of praying. But the goal is to move from division, which I believe to be sin. When you’re divided against yourself, when you’re estranged from your neighbor, when you’re alienated from God to salvation, when you’re are peace with yourself, you can say yes to your neighbor and can say yes to God.
Q: For you, what is the essence of Christianity?
A: The essence of a truly living faith, I believe, is awe and humility. We must be awestruck by the fact that we’re here and by the cosmos itself, and we must be humbled. The most beautiful of all etymologies is human, humane, humility, humble, humus. It’s dust to dust, ashes to ashes. That brings us humility, but also the awe for being able to even comprehend that or to embrace it. I’m a Christian Universalist. I believe that the same light shines through every religious window, and it’s interpreted. The windows are different. It’s interpreted in different ways. It refracts in different ways. The fundamentalist of the right says that the light shines only through their window. The fundamentalist of the left says, looking at the bewildering variety of windows and worshipers, that there is no light. But the windows aren’t the light. The windows are where the light shines through. You cannot pass through every window and get enlightened by it. You must find, and often you’re born into, a faith that will teach you the elements that will save you, and for me Christianity is that faith. It is a faith about love, love to God and love to neighbor that is right in the heart of my very being. I also believe that Christ created the church in dying, by passing his love on to his disciples. The church is truly the body of Christ in that sense. I think that’s the key. The key is the love imperative, often forgotten, often denied by the church through history. Often Jesus continues to be sacrificed on the altar built in his own name, but I do think that essential reminder stands not only at the heart of Christianity, but at the heart of my own form of universalism.
Q: What do you do if you can’t love?
A: If you can’t love, you have been probably very badly hurt. There are some people who are pathologic. There are some people who simply are born, evidently, without the empathy gene. I exclude them from my general analysis. They certainly exclude me. But for most of us, love is always an opportunity that can very easily be trampled on, sacrificed, from the very earliest days of one’s life. I mean, child beating can take away your trust in life. Abandonment can take away your trust in life. So there are many reasons to harden one’s heart. But for as good a reason as you may have, and I counsel with people who at the age of 55 and 60 are still agonizing over what their parents are doing to them or did to them, the only way to reconcile yourself, make peace with yourself, make peace with your neighbor, make peace with God, find salvation, is to break through and love, to forgive and to love. You don’t change the person you forgive. You chance your own heart. So anything that you can do to reconcile also means that at the end of your life, when you’re given a few months to live, you can look back without regret, you can look back at peace, and you can move forward with an embrace of each day that is given to you and the opportunities that it affords, and the depth that it gives you to relate more profoundly with your family, your loved ones, and your God.
Q: That ability to live in the now is something you are experiencing greatly?
A: I have preached on living in the present for my entire career — nostalgia for the present, looking forward to the present — and I was always preaching to myself, because I was hung up in the past, and I was apprehensive about the future, mostly about things that never happened. But I knew that was right, that we could only end the here and now act, that the past is a chimera. We make it up as much as we experience it, and the future is a complete crapshoot. So only in the here and now can we love God and love our neighbor, can we redeem the day. One of the beautiful things about a terminal illness, one of the truly beautiful things — yes, there’s a lot of pain and discomfort and sometimes agony, but if you have made peace with your past and have no unfinished business, you do not have a full plate for the future, and you are invited into the present, and your friendships become stronger. Your loved ones become more vital and more present. Each day becomes more beautiful. Every day is a gift unto itself, and you just unwrap it. You unwrap the present and receive it as the gift it is. And that is, for me anyway, an unexpected boon during this time of trial. You walk through the valley of the shadow, and it’s riddled with light.