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BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a profile today of perhaps this country’s best known Unitarian Universalist minister, Reverend Forrest Church of New York. He has a new book out called “Love and Death.” Last week, Church’s congregation gave him a 60th birthday party. But it was a celebration with great sadness just underneath the joy.
It was a love fest at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side of New York. The members honored Reverend Forrest Church, their pastor for 30 years, on the occasion of his 60th birthday. His wife was there and their children, and his 85 year old mother. The covers of his 24 books were on display. But there was a great poignancy to the festivities because everyone present knew that Reverend Church is terminally ill. He has incurable cancer of his lungs and liver, and he guesses he has less than a year to live.
Reverend FORREST CHURCH: I’m being gifted a month at a time and rejoicing in that. But eventually the treatment will lose its valence, and the barbarians will storm the gate.
ABERNETHY: Church says he was astounded at his reaction to being told he is dying.
Rev. CHURCH: I went straight to acceptance. I skipped shock and disbelief and anger and resentment. I went directly to acceptance.
ABERNETHY: The key, Church says, was being able to settle unfinished emotional business.
Rev. CHURCH: 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 change 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.
The two saddest words in the English language are “if only,” and they ring with the most poignancy at a time that a person gets 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.”
ABERNETHY: Church did have time to say goodbye to his father, the late U.S. senator, Frank Church, during his father’s last months. But he concedes he was slow to realize his duty to his family now.
Rev. CHURCH: 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. This was a time to listen, embrace, and say “I’m so sorry,” and crying together and then singing — singing the old songs.
ABERNETHY: A lot of crying?
Rev. CHURCH: There was a lot of crying.
ABERNETHY: During and in spite of his illness and treatment over the past two years, Church wrote two books. He confessed to his congregation one of the reasons for his productivity.
Rev. CHURCH (during sermon): Steroids! Every week, the good folks at Memorial pumped me full of steroids. They helped me tolerate the poison they were pumping into me to kill the cancer. For two or three days after every treatment I was flying. I haven’t been so high since the late ’60s.
ABERNETHY: Like other Unitarian Universalists, Church rejects many aspects of Christian doctrine. He neither blames God for his illness, nor asks God for healing.
Rev. CHURCH: 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. I have no idea what happens after we die, 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.”
ABERNETHY: At the same time, Church says he has come to believe that without God there is nothing.
Rev. CHURCH: God is what sustains me. I am connected with that grace and power. God is that which is greater than all and present in each. For me, Christianity is a faith about love — love to God and love to neighbor. That is right in the heart of my very being. I am 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.
ABERNETHY: Church calls what he wrote in his new book a coda to his theology.
Rev. CHURCH: My lifelong belief that love and death interwoven were the heartstrings of religion. The greatest of all truths is that love never dies, that every act of love that we perform in this life is carried on into another life and passed on into another life, so that centuries from now the love carries, and that is the work of religion. 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, 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.
The secret of it all is that it’s not about me. To the extent that we’re self-conscious, absorbed, we cannot be conscious of the world around us, of God and of our neighbors.
I have preached on living in the present for my entire career. 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–your friendships become stronger. Your loved ones become more vital and more present. Each day becomes more beautiful. You unwrap the present and receive it as the gift it is. You walk through the valley of the shadow, and it’s riddled with light.
ABERNETHY: At the close of all the other tributes to Church, his wife Carolyn made hers.
CAROLYN CHURCH: I want you to know how much at peace Forrest is. He’s at peace because he’s become the man he wanted to be. He couldn’t have done that without you. You have loved him, you have supported him, you have forgiven him, and that’s really made all the difference. So darling, 60 years. Happy Birthday!
ABERNETHY: And if love could heal him, there would be many more.