Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Where, O Death, is thy Sting?

We’re all going to die. This gets covered in detail on Ash Wednesday, and we The Church tend to think about it more than usual throughout the season of Lent, so I thought it an appropriate subject for today. Death is the inevitable result of life, and eventually it claims us all. But that’s not the real tragedy. What’s sad to me is that so many people fear dying, rather than look forward to it at least a little.

And I get it. Nobody knows for sure what happens when we die. Every religion (and lack thereof) is a faith, after all, not a set of certain, verifiable knowledge. There’s something undeniably scary about that. Death is unfamiliar and unknowable, and all too often death comes too soon, too preventably, and so senselessly that we are right to lament it.

I also don’t mean to suggest that I can’t wait to die. I love life. I will never have enough time with my wife, and there are dozens of things I hope to accomplish yet in this world. That’s why I’m putting myself through just about every kind of cancer treatment ever invented and trying experimental therapies still in testing in an attempt to buy just a bit more time. So it’s utterly and thoroughly untrue that I want to die, and the sooner the better.

Yet dying means an end to suffering. For me, it will bring relief from the grueling slog of cancer treatments I’ve endured for over three years. So it’ll be fine, though much more for me than for those I leave behind. Others will be heartbroken or at least a little sad. I’ll simply be at peace. I thought I was dying a few months ago when I triggered a Code Blue during an immunotherapy infusion, and my only thought in that moment was “they should probably just let me go at this point, rather than continue working to keep me around.” Not in so many words, perhaps, but that was the gist of it. I’m glad that was my reaction. I’m glad I’ve made my peace with the inevitable, should it come tomorrow or in twenty years.

Too often, Christians are absurdly fearful of death. It makes about as much sense to me as those who simultaneously fear “signs of the End Times” while hoping for a sudden deliverance from this world and all its troubles. Those of us who believe an eternal life with God awaits us after death should look forward to that. Sure, saying ‘see you later’ to those who go before us—or those we leave behind when we go ourselves—isn’t exactly fun. But they’re only temporary partings, and life eternal that’s free from sin and suffering sounds pretty great.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Gun Control

I’m not aware of anybody who thinks private ownership of nuclear warheads is protected by the Second Amendment. I also don’t know of anyone who wants to ban antique smooth-bore muskets. That’s probably because a single nuclear detonation in a major city could kill hundreds of thousands of people. A musket, not so much. So while the ongoing shouting match about gun control is often presented by gun control opponents as an unprecedented, all-out attack on the Second Amendment, the truth is we all understand and accept that the average citizen of the United States should not in fact have the right to bear any and all kinds of weaponry indiscriminately.

Gun control is really just a part of broader weapons regulations that we already have. It boils down to a question of how many people can you kill with a given weapon, and how quickly and easily. If we frame the discussion like that, I think and hope we’ll get a very different kind of debate, especially from those who declare themselves ‘Pro-Life.’ But I’m not going to hold my breath.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ash Wednesday

I used to love Ash Wednesday, before I got cancer. Ash Wednesday always stood out to me as special. Apart from Good Friday, it’s pretty much the only day in the church calendar when not all is warm fuzzies and joy eternal. Ash Wednesday is sad. Ash Wednesday is real. It’s one of those very rare occasions when church not only allows us to be a little sad, but in fact encourages it.

I always loved that, because life is profoundly sad sometimes. People die. We all will die someday, every single one of us. We don’t remember that enough, and Ash Wednesday gives us an important reminder of the frailty and futility of material pursuits. Ash Wednesday is also a day in which pretenses of well-being are set aside and it’s alright to be flawed and mortal. On Ash Wednesday, Christianity can’t be abused to make false promises of health and wealth and every good thing in this life. On Ash Wednesday, we’re encouraged to remember that life is fleeting. I think that’s great.

I just don’t personally feel much of a need for it anymore.

I know I’m made of all-too fragile dust. I’m well aware that I’ll return to such before long. I haven’t been to an Ash Wednesday service since I got diagnosed over three years ago. Partly by default, since I’ve just not always been well enough to go to one, and partly I just haven’t wanted to.

If you know my story, you’d probably expect me to talk about my scars and how I don’t need ashes imposed upon my forehead to bear a physical reminder of my mortality. And that’s a good guess; I have over a dozen scars from various surgeries, after all. While they are pretty visible, and while they do remind me how close to death I have been and likely still am, I honestly just don’t notice them that much anymore. I’ve grown so used to them that every so often they genuinely surprise me.

Instead, how I feel is a much more brazen reminder of my mortality. Right now, I’m tired. I’m fatigued. I get light-headed and out of breath really, really easily. When my blood counts are down like they were this past weekend, I have to beware what I eat, who I’m around and if they’re vaccinated and healthy, and how often I wash my hands. Now, as my blood counts recover, I feel a deep aching in my bones as my marrow kicks back into gear. It’s not too intense, but it’s there, enough that I can say with reasonable certainty that my counts are recovering before my bloodwork results come in.

There are plenty of other non-physical reminders too. Heck, I wrote this post in the waiting area at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Pediatric Day Hospital, surrounded by a dozen other cancer patients, most of whom are younger than me. At the time I’m posting this, I’m waiting for the results of yesterday’s PET scan to know what the cancer in me has been up to these last couple months of chemo and immunotherapy. The days in which I feel well enough that I don’t experience multiple physical reminders of my cancer and the parade of treatments I’ve made it through are rare enough that they stand out to me and are themselves reminders too. So I’m intimately and intensely aware that we’re all dying one day at a time. And I could go into a dozen more ways my body sometimes feels like it’s slowly dying because of my cancer and the treatments I’ve needed for it—like mild neuropathy in my hands and feet or the many changes to my intestinal fortitude over the last few years—but you probably get the idea already. In short, each day provides multiple reminders that I’m mortal, that I’m dust. I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death every single day, one way or another.

If that’s true for you, then you probably understand why I don’t feel a need to spend an hour at a church service contemplating my impending death. I live that reality often enough as it is. But if you don’t—if your body’s wellness allows you to forget your mortality, your frailty, your dustiness—then try an Ash Wednesday service. I can’t imagine going through life without an awareness and appreciation of the fleeting nature of life. I wouldn’t want to take living for granted, forgetting to actually live while I can and postponing the important for a tomorrow that may not dawn. I’d rather know that I’m made of dust, and to dust I will soon return.