I am tired of watching people die. I would have made a terrible doctor. My sense of helplessness at the level of illness in the general population is too high for me to want to ‘practice the healing arts’. But my people value my presence in their need. I’m never sure what I bring them, or if indeed I bring them anything, but learning that you are a dying man’s favourite visitor is both a comfort and a curse.
My weariness with death would be understandable but for one important fact; we are born for farewells. Death is a part of us all, and a gift presented to us at our birth. This is not morbid posturing, it is the truth – a truth that is more powerful that fact. For the facts tell us we can delay death – enjoy death – run from death – and even, occasionally arrange death on our own terms. The truth is, death is ours to deal with, and none will avoid it.
The challenge of pastoral ministry, then, is tied directly to the facts of our living and the truth of our dying. Within the church some are called to journey with the faithful as we all juggle these terrible swords of fact and truth – of living and dying among the living and the dying, and the ever-present memory of the dead. If I had been able to describe my call in this manner at the beginning, I may have stayed in the farm equipment business. Preaching a little, learning a little, but never venturing too close to the truth, as it were. But once the truth captured me, I could do nothing but follow where I was led; to study – to apprentice – and to be among a people living toward the truth.
The truth – an interesting concept – one that changes as we age. The truth, for a child, is often difficult to bear (or impossible to understand), so as children the truth becomes that word or promise that we would most like to hear; therefore if you tell me (as a child) that something good is coming, I will believe that to be the truth.
The truth (as we grow) becomes the thing that must show us in the best possible light, so we craft truth to save us from ourselves. Some are more artful than others – they move on to positions of influence and power. There are those people who seem to know intuitively that the reason the truth is stranger than fiction is because truth should never be confused with fact.
So here I am, trying to separate fact from truth – not always sure I know where to draw the line – and caught in the great dilemma of humanity: how can we fully live when our end is so near?
Death is always near – that is both fact and truth – the dying are among us; so too, the dead whom we arrange in patterned parklands. No amount of wishing can keep us from our appointment with the end of our own time. Societies have developed to shield us from the inevitability of our own death. We order ourselves to distraction. We invent (and participate) in a variety of sins to help us ignore the passage of time. We covet, and comfort; we slander and savour; we build-up and break down. All so we might postpone acceptance of the thing that will not go away.
So how do we address truth and fact in this community? We tell stories about the dead, and make stories for the dying, and in the process, we ignore ourselves – every activity is tied to someone else’s demise – every expense of energy is devoted to self-delusion, and it works (for a time) until someone arrives who would draw our attention to the sham.
Jesus did this. Saw through the façade that society had created that kept them apart from God – apart from the truth/fact of their mortality, and God’s part in it. Jesus called a spade a spade (when he wasn’t calling it a blasted shovel) and advised people to think rightly about a world that was broken. Jesus is our model for that sort of talk, and it is accepted with as much incredulity now as it was then. I can’t even believe it myself, and I am finding myself moved to say some pretty astounding things. Equating demon possession with the current state of the church (and the churches fascination with the things of the world…) our focus on finance, our urge to grow for the sake of growth, our hunger for knowledge without wisdom, or wisdom without courage, our courage without humility…all these things possess us from time to time, and render us incapable of seeing past the façade that Jesus shattered with his presence, his persistence, his Passion and his risen power.
Perhaps this year, as our annual remembrance of Passion and Resurrection confront us with the truth, we are finally in a position to see what Jesus meant us to see by his confrontational compassion – that since the thing that we fear most (our death) will not be denied, we’d best live in a manner that honours both the gift of our lives and the giver of all good things.
Love your neighbour as yourself – and love God, whose presence cannot be defined by our mortality. That was Jesus plan. That shall be my plan too. Truth.