Remembering Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II in March 2015, Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence Derivative: nagualdesign –, Licensed under OGL 3

Today is the first day in my life in which Queen Elizabeth II is no longer the Queen of the United Kingdom and the nations of the British Commonwealth. I am 68 and she was Queen before I was born. I’ve seen so many world leaders come and go. Churchill, de Gaulle, Khrushchev (and Gorbachev), Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan. And always there was Queen Elizabeth II.

Her Platinum Jubilee earlier this summer reminded me that this day would come. Yet I was among those who said, “God save the Queen” because I didn’t want it to come yet. But her absence from many of the festivities suggested the increasingly fragile nature of her health at age 96. I suspected it would not be much longer before she followed her husband Philip.

I remember a youthful Queen. I collected stamps as a kid, and upon her coronation, every country in the Commonwealth at that time printed stamps with her youthful, crowned profile. I remember a young mother with children around my age or older. In pictures of her over the years, I saw a maturing, and then aging monarch, always self-possessed, but bearing like all of us, the marks of advancing years. That mental montage of images including the frail Queen with youthful incoming Prime Minister Truss on Tuesday remind me of the arc of life we all follow.

What strikes me, as it has so many, is how she persisted in fulfilling her royal duties from her youth, even while Princess during the war years until this very week. She once said, “Work is the rent you pay for the room you occupy on earth.” She traveled more than any monarch in history, visiting Canada twenty times alone. And this from one who, while Edward VIII was king, did not expect to reign. In the end, she reigned longer than any British monarch.

I think part of her longevity had to do with her resilience. Think of what the past seventy years have brought: the end of Great Britain as one of the greatest powers, the end of empire, advances in technology, changes in moral standards, the shift from industrial to technology driven economies, and so much more. Media shifted from print to radio to television to the 24/7 news cycle, and the internet. Historians and biographers have and will point out mistakes made by her and her family negotiating the traditions of monarchy in such rapidly changing times. What stands out is that she learned and she lasted. Can any of us do more?

I’m reminded of her courage. She and her family could have fled to Canada during the war. Along with Churchill, they stayed and gave support to those who faced untold trials. She faced the dangers of public life, including at least two attempts on her life.

I think of her faith. Formally the Queen was ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’. I sensed there was more. She was not just a Christian monarch but a monarch who was an openly professing Christian. This was evident in her annual Christmas messages, that I made a point to listen to once they were on video. In 2000 she said:

“To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”

Yet she was never parochial or intolerant, practicing warm inter-faith relationships.

She combined representing the Kingdom and the Commonwealth with dignity with setting people at ease. When World War Two ended, she mingled unknown among the celebrating crowds. She could do that no longer once Queen but many pictures showing her setting people at ease, whether children, soldiers, ordinary people, or foreign dignitaries. And who of us will forget how she did this with Paddington Bear during her Platinum Jubilee.

Ma’amalade sandwich Your Majesty?

As an American citizen, she was not my Queen. And yet, in both her Jubilee and her passing, I believe in some sense she became the Queen of all of us and today I feel the loss that she is no longer with us, the first day this is so in my life. Her passing reminds me that all of us, even monarchs, are mere mortals. All of us run a race with a finish. The Queen ran hers to the end. Now, may she discover all that she in faith believed and defended. And may she Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.

Review: At the Back of the North Wind

At the Back of the North Wind, George MacDonald. New York: Open Road Media, 2022.

Summary: Diamond becomes friend with the North Wind, who takes him on many adventures, even while he is a help to everyone he meets and known for his rhymes.

Diamond is a young boy, who is described as having “a tile loose,” and yet is so pleasant and helpful and even precocious that he is a delight to his parents and all those his life touches. His first bedroom is in a barn above the stable of “Old” Diamond, the faithful horse his father drives, first as a livery man and later as a cabbie. The wall behind his head has a hole in it that he and his mother both try to plug until he learns that in so doing he is plugging one of the windows of the North Wind. Diamond befriends her and goes on a number of night adventures. In one, he helps a little girl, Nanny, a street sweeper. Most of the adventures with North Wind are delightful but not all. On one, North Wind is a great storm that swamps a ship, with the loss of all but a handful aboard. At another point, he learns of the land at “the back of the North Wind,” and in a time when he is very ill, he is permitted to go there, a place North Wind herself has not gone, by passing through North Wind into a paradise-like place.

On his return, a crisis had passed in his illness, and a turning point occurred in his life, much like that of many who report near-death experiences. He has an uncanny capacity to create rhymes that soothe the baby in his home and improvise on nursery rhymes. By now his father is driving cab and he learns to handle Diamond, and takes his father’s place during illness. There is a period where he rarely encounters North Wind. But he helps Nanny who has taken sick, seeking the help of Mr. Raymond, a philanthropist, who had been a fare and was taken with the boy. While she was in the hospital, she has dreams of going to the Moon, which she tells Diamond, making him wonder if his own adventures with North Wind were real or also just dreams–or can dreams be real?

I won’t reveal the ending except to suggest that I believe Diamond discovers the answer to his questions, which remind one of the questions one might have about the life of faith. And what of the North Wind? We have both a beautiful woman who creates a nest for Diamond in her hair or holds him to her bosom, but is also a fierce power sending a ship full of people to their deaths. Is North Wind a kind of angel of death (very different than typically portrayed)? Diamond is given up for dead at the time he goes “back of the North Wind.” Death hovers over this story, as it did over life in this period where children often died young, a pregnancy could end in death, or an illness strike down a hearty man, as it nearly does Diamond’s father. There is at once an inscrutable character about death but also the assurances of One who will be near us in our dying, even a friend of the dying.

Most of us do not have near death experiences from which we return. MacDonald doesn’t shy away from this reality. In Diamond, we have one whose life is transformed by dying, “as one who has been back of the North Wind.” And the story suggests to me that when we face death’s realities and our hope for what is beyond, we also may be changed. Stern stuff for young readers in our day, but in MacDonald’s time, children became acquainted early with death and needed stories to help them live in light of its reality. As do we.

Review: The Lost Art of Dying

the lost art of dying

The Lost Art of DyingL. S. Dugdale. New York: Harper One, 2020.

Summary: A physician challenges our over-medicalized treatment of the dying, advocating a recovery of the “art of dying,” which also makes it possible to live well.

He died three times in one night. Mr. Turner was an elderly man dying of metastatic cancer that had invaded much of his body. But the family insisted everything be done to keep him alive. So when he “coded,” much of the hospital mobilized to resuscitate him. Chest compressions broke frail ribs. Breathing tubes were inserted. Injections of powerful drugs were injected to restart the heart. This happened twice more that night. The final time, the team worked twenty minutes to no avail. Mr. Turner was pronounced dead. The author, one of the physicians on this team asks whether this is a good way to die.

This incident, during her residency, began a process of questioning about what it meant to die well, leading to her discovery of the Ars Moriendi, The Art of Dying, a fourteenth century handbook arising out of the plagues, when anyone might expect to die an early death. Dying well begins with recognizing one’s finitude, reckoning on and appropriately planning for one’s death. Dying well happens best in community, where the dying acknowledges wrongs and seeks forgiveness, where love is expressed, and where bystanders rehearse their own death. Dugdale also talks about how context matters, and the preference where appropriate care can be given, for death at home, and in the hospital, only when that affords the best care.

Often our inability to die well, and the actions that hinder dying well reflect our fear of death. She confronts the real terror, even for the religious, of the unknown void of death. Dugdale’s counsel is that each of us has to wrestle with what it means to die into life. In an extended reflection on the Isenheim Altarpiece, she considers what happens to the body in disease and death–its corruption into dust. She describes the reality summarized in one terrified patient’s words–“I don’t know what I believe”–and the vital work of facing the existential questions of meaning to both live and die well.

Her final chapters describe the rituals that follow death, and the wisdom in the Jewish tradition around grief. She concludes with some recommendations that might form a modern Art of Dying. Think twice about hospitalization. Discern when further treatment is futile. Live well at the end through good, and early, palliative care when death is imminent. Reconsider resuscitation. Start giving away your stuff. Live with purpose. Die in community.

The book concludes with a series of ink drawings by Michael W. Dugger, similar to the woodcuts in the original Ars Moriendi around the themes of each chapter of the book. They are a fitting way to invite us to reflect once more on this book’s message: we desperately need to recover the art of dying well. It isn’t to be found in the over-medicalized, hospital-centric practices of our modern way of death. Nor is it to be found in the denial of our finitude, our efforts to suppress our fears.

This book gives much to think about in our current pandemic, including the terrible tragedy of how it results in lonely deaths. A blessing upon the caregivers who treat the dying with dignity and compassion! It also makes me wonder if our inability to pursue for an extended time the disciplines that guard our health and that of our neighbors reflects the fact that we haven’t done the work of preparing to die well. We act as if we are invulnerable. We risk our lives for a night of clubbing. To not adequately reckon with death is to not adequately  treasure the gift of the life we have, the community with whom we share it, and betrays the thinness of our efforts to consider the existential questions of life. All this suggests that this book could not have come at a better time.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Memento Mori

I write these words during a week some predict new infections and deaths from COVID-19 may come to a peak in the United States. It is plain that for many this will be a very bad week. For Christians, this is Holy Week, the final week of Lent. For Jews, Passover in 2020 begins on the night on which I which I write.

“Memento mori.” One of the key aspects of Lent is remembering that we will die. During many years, I suspect this only receives passing attention while we go on with our lives. Not this year. This year has smacked us in the face with death. We have watched death tolls rise in country after country, and now in our own. Suddenly a trip to the grocery store feels like running a perilous gantlet.

“Memento mori.” I’m geeky enough to follow statistics. One of the interesting ones I’ve noticed in our state’s statistics is the median age of those who have died. At present, it is 78. What is striking is that 78.6 years is also the average life expectancy in the US. Now there is some difference between median and mean, but it was close enough that it strikes me that the distribution of deaths approximates that in normal life–some die at every age, but the older you are, the more likely you are to die if you contract this disease. Of course the truth is, the older you are, the more likely you are to die, period. The only thing that is different is that because of this disease, more people at all ages are dying at present. For all of us, this is real!

“Memento mori.” C.S. Lewis reminds us in his sermon Learning in War-Time that war does not increase the frequency of death–“100 percent of us die.” Lewis argues that the one distinctive thing about war is that it forces us to remember death. Young soldiers make out wills. How many of us have made out wills and advance directives in this crisis?

“Memento mori.” The practice of remembering that we will die in Lent is not an exercise in fear or hopelessness. It is an honest reckoning, that along with Christ, we must go through Good Friday before there is Easter. Passover, for the Jews remembers another plague, the death of the firstborn throughout Egypt, sparing the Jews only because of the lamb’s blood on their door posts. Good Friday reminds us of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Death will take us from this life and this world, but it will not take us from God. As death did not hold Jesus, we believe that death will not hold us. Beyond Good Friday is Easter–Resurrection Day. One day, “he (or she) is risen” will be said of all of us who hope in Christ.

“Memento mori.” I do not think we can truly live with joy in each day without coming to terms with our death. To suppress it, to ignore it, to fear it, to obsess over it robs us of the deeper richness of life’s most ordinary joys. I recognize and respect that not all who read this embrace what I believe. What these times confront all of us with is the real possibility of our death, or that of someone we love. It poses, if we will face it, perhaps the most important question of human existence, which is how we will come to terms with our mortality. Remembering that we will die, and determining how that will shape the way we however many years are yet given us may be the great gift of this pandemic.

Stay safe, my dear friends.

Review: On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of Everything

On the Brink of EverythingParker J. Palmer. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A series of reflections on aging, living with grace and vitality as we age, and facing our deaths.

Perhaps one of the greatest unknowns that shape our lives either by denial, or conscious reflection is our own deaths. Like so much else, we have no clue what to expect until we get there. For some of us, our religious beliefs offer the hope of life beyond taking our last breath, or perhaps a return in another incarnation, or a oneness with the universe. We believe, perhaps with good reasons, but none of us knows. We wonder if death is going over the brink of nothingness. For Parker J. Palmer, at the end of his eighth decade, death is the “brink of everything.” This work consists of collected reflections around the question both of “how shall we die?” and how consequently we live, particularly in the autumn years of our lives, a season he believes has its own beauty.

Palmer had me from the “Prelude” where he writes: “Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefits. I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve discovered the joy of doing one thing at a time.” In seven chapters, Palmer organizes his reflections and poetry around several topics. In “The View from the Brink: What I Can See From Here” he proposes that instead of asking “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” that we ask “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?” Like Erikson, he sees that living generatively and giving ourselves to rising generations is essential to our vitality. That leads into a chapter on “Young and Old” A highlight in this chapter was a letter to a collaborator in the “On Being” program, Courtney Martin, and his observations about gender relationships. The chapter also includes one of the pithier and substantive commencement addresses I’ve heard or read.

“Getting Real” recounts the influence of Thomas Merton on his life and the journey from illusion to reality in his own life, from false self to true self. He describes an epiphany when a therapist observed about his perception of his struggle with depression (qualifying this as applying only to his own experience):

“You seem to image what’s happening to you as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to image it instead as a hand of a friend pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”

The chapter concludes with journal reflections from a winter retreat week, which includes more Merton.

His chapter on “Work and Vocation” centers on his life as a writer. He confesses, “I became a writer because I was born baffled.” It was helpful to find someone else who thinks this. I often find myself writing to find words to express an “inchoate something” that is rumbling around inside. “Keep Reaching Out” speaks to the necessity of remaining engaged with our world, which he models in how he wrestles what that means in a country led by a president whose character and values are at utter odds with his. As a Quaker, he wrestles through the question of how to be angry and yet live one’s commitments to non-violence. A short essay in this section on “The Soul of a Patriot” included a succinct statement from William Sloan Coffin that expressed with precision something I’ve been groping for:

“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers, and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”

We also need to “Keep Reaching In,” His insights on the connection between pain and violence were thought-provoking to me, reminding me of Henri Nouwen and how wounds can become toxic or sacred to us, depending on the inner work we do:

“What can we do with our pain? How might we hold it and work with it? How do we turn the power of suffering toward new life? The way we answer those questions is critical because violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” 

This relates to his final chapter “Over the Edge,” in which he calls out the great challenge of wholeness, which is to live with and embrace all the contradictions of our lives–our noble and petty qualities–saying “I am all of the above.” He reminds us that we are never other than beautiful and broken persons and to face the truth about ourselves allows us both to live and die well. As for what is “beyond,” the most he will cautiously advance is that he believes that somehow body and spirit are intertwined and indivisible, whether in simply making new life possible or something more.

In this last, it is clear that this is not a book that presents an orthodox Christian view of death and future hope (although the resurrection is a marvelous expression, I think, of his intuitions of the indivisibility of body and spirit). Rather his reflections, the questions he explores in his writing, as well as the bonus downloadable music by retreat collaborator and musician Carrie Newcomer, explore how we might grow old with grace and generativity, rather than crankiness and frustration and sadness. His insights about anger and pain, and the temptations to violence seem very relevant whether we are old or young in this angry and violent culture.

I live in a place of seasons and I love the approach of each one and think each has its own beauty. Palmer helps me to see this in life, that the approach of autumn, and the winter to follow have their own beauty. Contrary to Dylan Thomas, Palmer suggests that we can go gently into the good night. He proposes that this is a season that has its own richness, that he invites us to join with him in exploring as we all approach the brink of everything.

Interview: Matthew Levering, Part One

Levering-003-ARTMatthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has authored or co-authored over twenty books, including the recently published Dying and the Virtues, reviewed yesterday on this blog. I had the privilege of sitting down with him for a conversation while at a conference on the Mundelein Seminary campus. We discussed his personal journey to faith, his decision to enter the Catholic church, his scholarship, his latest work, and his thoughts on the work of a theologian and the state of theology. It was a rich and long conversation. Today’s post will include his thoughts about his scholarship and his book, Dying and the Virtues. Tomorrow, I will include his take on the work of a theologian and the state of the theological enterprise. Both are lightly edited transcripts of our conversation.

Bob on Books:  You’ve written a lot of books and I wonder if you could talk about whether there is any thread or trajectory that ties together your scholarship?

Matthew Levering:  Certainly there is a desire to be touched by Jesus, to learn about Jesus from all angles,  and to learn about Jesus in his divine sonship and his relationship with the Father, his love for us, and to reach out to him through writing and thinking. That’s the motivating thing. There’s also a strong thing that moves me very deeply of bridging the elements of the Christian past with the Christian present.  I’m very interested in scriptural reading. I read historical critical biblical scholarship. A fun day is if I’m reading something from Augustine and then I read something from Richard Hayes and I make a connection between the two because there’s a sense of the fullness of Christianity, the wholeness, that I’m not getting stuck in any one century where I’m bringing together past and present. To me that’s the biblical office of a scribe. You bring old things and new. You offer them to fellow Christians as essentially a bringing together, a meditating on the scriptural word, but with all the centuries involved or as many as possible.

And it is bringing that word of God, that Living Word which is always new, always fresh, that has all the centuries and also an insistence that the passage of time has not distanced us from the actual gospel.  I’m very concerned that people say “well it was medieval or it was patristic, it was Reformation, it was this or that, it’s been distanced, it’s been separated from the Biblical word.” That would mean for me that God was not being faithful to his people during those time periods. In other words, to each generation, God is faithful to his people in giving the gospel to his people. So therefore, there must be a way to bring together all these diverse voices, to show their deep unity in Christ. You see what I mean?

Bob on Books: it sounds to me what you’re trying to do is to help people to see how this long tradition of scholarship hangs together.   That it is Christ who makes it hang together and reconciles all things. It seems like you’ve moved from your own encounter with Christ to helping others encounter Christ in this long tradition of people who have contemplated…

Matthew Levering: Yes that’s exactly the goal but also with contemporary questions, with questions that we have today, whether it’s from Richard Dawkins who is so influential– all sorts of questions that we have today. I don’t really do what’s called historical theology, I did one book of historical theology but it was the most boring book I ever wrote!  For me, all theology is caught up with the now, because it’s the day of Christ, because he’s present, he’s living. We need to draw upon all the centuries, all the wisdom, that Christ has been giving his people. We need to hear those voices, and those voices are going to be able to help us as we speak today to answer and to proclaim Jesus.

Bob on Books: You’ve mentioned the questions that we ask today. Your most recent book Dying  and the Virtues seems to address a very important question about  death and about how death shapes how we live. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what you were trying to do in that book.

Matthew  Levering:  That’s wonderful, because I wrote that book after the book on creation which was about God the Life Giver and the pouring out of life. As I pondered on this, I thought I needed to write a book on dying. Included in dying I also included the fall of Adam and Eve. That was a topic in my creation book and so I had already in mind the question of death. In my creation book I include a chapter on the fall and on Christ’s atonement. These things are already somewhat present  in the creation book. But the main point I want to get across is that for me, I can’t think of death as an academic topic. Nor can I think of any topic as a merely academic topic. It’s always deeply personal for me. When people say the word “death,” when I say the word death, I think it’s very concrete for me in the sense death isn’t an abstraction, a concept. Neither is creation, the Trinity, or anything. When I think of death, when I think about the experience of the last moments, the last days, that feels very concrete. I feel very contingent even if I were to live 50 more years.  Death doesn’t seem a distant thing from me but a very present neighbor.

Bob on Books:  It’s the same transience you were talking about in your personal experience…

Matthew Levering: Yes that’s it, the sense of transience.  I feel very strongly calling out to Christ Our Lord who dies on the cross for us.  I feel very strongly calling out to him saying “Lord, Lord is this really good? How could you leave me here to go through this threatening, this entering into darkness, a complete destruction of my bodily frame? How could this possibly be your will?” Calling out to Jesus and saying it’s good for you Lord, to be on the cross, and maybe we can build some booths around you like Peter and we can Rejoice that you have saved us Lord but now you’re surely not calling us to go through this Darkness, this sense of Destruction? My answer is surely not Lord! Surely not! Just like Peter saying by no means would the cross be good for the Lord.  

Bob on Books:  Connect up for me the idea of dying and the virtues–the two parts of your title.

Matthew Levering:  To give away the idea of the book,  it’s that God permits us to go through dying  because we need certain virtues. In other words dying is a crucial part of living and the process of dying begins everyday.  We need a set of virtues given our fallen condition. Even though we are redeemed we need to beg, we need to plead for these virtues. Dying is an instruction manual that teaches us to beg for what we actually need in order to flourish, what we need in order to be Christ-like.

Bob on Books:  I would assume that it has to do with faith, hope, and love?

Matthew Levering:  Yes it begins with faith hope and love. The first chapter is on the threat of annihilation. The first chapter is on love. I begin with the Book of Job where Job questions. I assemble a bunch of texts from The Book of Job where he questions whether God truly loves him. He remembers that one time that he and God were really close and that God seem to love him then. In fact God made him in the womb.  God knew him and crafted him. God built his flesh and bones. God loves him and put him in the community of people and God blessed him. Job cries out, “You’re not a lover, you’re a destroyer!” Job says that to God. I’m not quoting directly but he says “you’re there to destroy my flesh.”

This raises the question of love.  Does God love us? Do we love him? And can we love him given that our bodily frame is going to be destroyed. Do we love this God? Can we love him given that he seems to be threatening us? What kind of lover would allow us to go through this horrible misery and be destroyed? Does God really love us? Do we really love God? My main point is that we often don’t love God. We sort of fear God because we think he really doesn’t love us. He really doesn’t quite love us because he’s going to allow us to die. He’s going to humiliate us. In the end we’re going to be stripped and humiliated. So we love the God who sets us up on a pedestal and gives us a nice book by Eerdmans and stuff! We love that God but the God who sets us down and says you’re going to be stripped and humiliated– that God we don’t love. We don’t love the God of the cross. So we have to be turned around , we have to allow God’s voice to come through. Remember how God speaks to Job in the end. God says, “you don’t know my plan. You weren’t there. Were you there when the angels sang for joy at the dawn of creation? Do you know the power of the different created things?“

So God tells Job, “you just don’t know my ways.” And ultimately God’s point is that you don’t know the plan. The point that God has made to Job that Job understands is that God loves Job. God comes out and cares for Job and speaks to Joe.   God assures Job that his power to love is not going to be stopped by Death. The end of Job is like a blessing of resurrection, of communion in a certain way. It’s all really pointing to Christ where God shows who God is in the midst of death and resurrection in his perfect love. Since we’ve got to live it through Job, we’ve got to realize that we tend not to love God. We tend to love the God who is giving us blessings. But we tend to think that there’s this other God who is a humiliator, who is essentially going to abandon us.

Part two of this interview will appear tomorrow.

Preparing for an Earlier Death


A Silent Calling, by Alyssa L Miller, CC BY 2.0, unedited via Flickr

One of trends I’ve watched through my lifetime is lengthening life expectancy. When I was young, life expectancy was around 70. Now in the U.S, it is 78.8 years. Both of my parents lived into their nineties. A significant reason is treatments for cancer and heart disease, and, in general, advances in both preventive care, and treatments for many diseases, that if not curative, allow for longer life. Both of my parents recovered from illnesses from which they might have died in earlier times. My wife is a cancer survivor. I’ve recovered from an infection from which I might have died. My son had a heart procedure that cured an arrythmia that might have killed him.

All this was possible not only because of research advances and access to good medical care, but health insurance that allowed us to contribute to our health care costs without bankrupting us or exceeding our means. For many years, we and our employers paid health premiums, and my parents had medicare and supplemental coverage. In the case of my family, a job loss during one of these health crises might have led to very different outcomes.

Might we be facing the possibility of declining life expectancy, and the possibility that we might die sooner? Will it be the fate, at least for some of us in the U.S. to have life expectancies much more like those of the past? Will families see more deaths of infants and children (in my own city, infant mortality already is a function of zip code, with those in more prosperous zip codes seeing fewer deaths)? Will middle age people with treatable cancers die because they lack the coverage to afford the needed treatments, or bankrupt themselves trying to pay for it themselves, at higher rates than insurers pay?

It appears to me that as a country we are saying that it is morally acceptable to contemplate the possibility that some of our citizens, those whose employers don’t provide health coverage and cannot afford it, those with pre-existing conditions, those who have exceeded or cannot afford COBRA coverage, and perhaps the aged, may die earlier, simply because they cannot afford the health care and medications available to the more prosperous, that would extend their lives.

Truthfully, we’ve been saying that for a long time, and the latest health care measures only seem to enlarge the number of people who may not be able to afford treatments that may save or extend their lives. And I think it is likely that more of our citizens will need to face the sobering reality that death will come to them or those they love earlier than it might have. What will it do to the fabric of our society when the prosperous few receive care for which the rest can only hope?

I think part of how this happens is the illusion that “it can’t happen to me.” Yet for many, they may be one job loss, family crisis, accident, or illness, or chronic condition from facing this reality. The truth of it is that, no matter how much you feel in control, no matter how much money you have (for most of us), you are vulnerable.

Yes, health care is complicated. I’m glad our president finally figured this out. I’ll admit that I’m not an expert on this, but it seems we need to have a national conversation and solutions that are not partisan efforts if we are truly going to address the issues of health coverage in our country. It seems we need to talk about:

  • Whether we consider it morally acceptable to have the inequities that exist in our health care system, particularly when these impact the most vulnerable–children, the unemployed, the aged.
  • What good health care for all costs and how we will pay for it. It is true that we have been asking government to provide more than we are willing to pay for and this cannot continue indefinitely.
  • Ensuring that those who provide health care services and products and insurance receive a reasonable return for their work or investment allowing them to sustain their efforts without exorbitant profits.
  • What responsibility we have for our health choices — diet, exercise, preventive care, lifestyle.
  • A better understanding and compassionate stewardship of good end of life care that neither hastens nor prolongs dying.

If we can’t figure out how to have that conversation, then it seems that we need to figure out how to talk about the fact that many of us may be dying sooner. It may be that we have to face the reality of dying sooner ourselves, or desperately using all our resources to save our lives. It may be that we have to figure out how we are going to remain one people when some receive care denied to others.  Are we ready for that?

Are We Witnessing the Death of a Culture?

notes-on-the-death-of-a-cultureNobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, thinks so, and makes this contention in a new book, Notes on the Death of a Culture. I have not read the book but came across this excerpt today on Literary Hub. Llosa’s basic contention is that global entertainment culture has basically destroyed any intellectual, literary high culture, except as tourist spots for those who want to get their culture creds. He defines “entertainment culture” as a culture whose only value is profit.

What this article left me wondering is why entertainment is the only thing we value, whether it is in music videos, manga, or opiates. My wife and I have pondered why people give themselves over to such powerful addictive drugs, and the risk of fatal overdoses. All I can come up with is that we have become a culture that is living by the axiom of “let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And if that is the case, then indeed, we are witnessing the death of a culture. And it won’t matter who we elect as president.

Llosa is concerned that we no longer value great art, music, literature and the cultivation of the intellect that led to careful, reasoned discourse. My observation is that people need a reason to value goodness, truth and beauty. Telling them they should do so, particularly when mass culture offers such cheap and quick thrills, is just not going to cut it. What is it that makes us defer instant gratification for the hard work of dissecting a careful argument, of meditatively studying a great work of art, of penetrating the depths of a beautiful but complex piece of music? What is it that drives us to devote our lives to producing such works, or other cultural artifacts of distinctive excellence?

I wonder if at the root of it all is a deep sense of hope that what we are doing matters, and will matter long after our physical death. And I wonder whether the notion that we live on in our work is enough. Woody Allen dispelled that long ago for me in the movie Interiors, when a character remarks after a death, in response to this sentiment, “what does that matter when you are dead?”

Llosa comments on T.S. Eliot, whose sense of the life of a culture was that it was bound up with religious faith. And what religious faith (in Eliot’s case as well as my own, Christianity) offers is hope. Why else would we care for the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty, the quest for the transcendent if there is nothing to be transcended. Can a culture exist without hope? And we witness this in our political campaigns, whether they promise expanded employment, or simply to make us “great” again. In the turn to mass entertainment and to narcotizing our pain, aren’t we admitting that none of these chimeras of hope is enough?

People in many quarters are dismissive of religion today, and Christianity in particular. And yet isn’t it the hope of life everlasting, and the consciousness of a reckoning of one’s life that drove the cathedral builders, the great artists, the founders of universities, composers like Bach, and many great writers? From whence did ideas of the rule of law, even over kings come from? Isn’t this what also drove people like newly sainted Mother Teresa to leave the comforts of home for the streets of Calcutta (Kolkata)? If we dismiss religious faith, what will we put in its place to give life to our culture, and hope that is meaningful for the many?

Transcendence–or Resurrection?

In the current movie, Transcendence, (which I have not seen) Johnny Depp’s character is mortally wounded by anti-Artificial Intelligence terrorists, and before he dies, his consciousness is downloaded into a computer by his wife. As is typical of such things, all sorts of mayhem results as his consciousness connects to the internet.

What is interesting is that this is not just the stuff of movies but that there is serious thinking and the beginnings of research with the goal of doing just this, as evidenced in the Wikipedia article on Mind uploading. Apart from the ethical questions raised by such efforts, my question is, why would you want to do this when there is a much better alternative?

What am I talking about? Resurrection–the idea of coming to life again after one has died in a new type of physical body that has continuity in some way with the one we have in this life but is subject to neither aging, disease, or death. Frankly, there is a good deal I like about embodied existence that a purely mental or even spiritual existence can’t hold a candle to. There are the experiences of the senses, glorious visions, beautiful music, delectable smells, the pleasures of eating, touching and being touched. There are the delights of using one’s body to translate our ideas into a gourmet dish, a song, a spoken word, a beautiful garden, a work of art, or even just this sentence. Some might argue that there are digital equivalents to this, but I’m not buying it.


This is why I celebrate Easter. Resurrection is not a speculation of futurists or a research goal for the near or distant future. When we say, “He is risen, He is risen indeed” in churches around the world, we celebrate the reality that the first man has already come back from the dead, not as a resuscitated corpse, but as a gloriously new, yet emphatically the same Jesus in the flesh. Beyond their wildest dreams, the first followers of Jesus empirically validated the reality that resurrection is possible. They saw, heard, even touched the risen Christ.

Not only that, but followers of Jesus believe that “resurrection” is already at work in us, dying though we are. The apostle Paul speaks of a “new creation” having begun in us, that we already have experienced a being raised from spiritual death to life. The resurrection of the body simply marks the completion of a process whose beginning was symbolized when I was lifted up out of the waters of baptism.

Death seems so final, and perhaps what motivates people who dream of accomplishing “transcendence” is to find a way to evade and transcend this final reality.  If you don’t believe in a hereafter, if all you believe is that when you die, you rot, then transcendence is the only game in town. I also wonder if for others, “transcendence” is the best shot at evading the hereafter, or so one hopes.

Death also seems not to be the way things were meant to be. The Bible speaks of it as the last enemy to be destroyed. No wonder we fight it so hard with all our medical technology! No wonder we sometimes try to deny its existence or thwart its impact upon our lives. The truth is, I love my life in this body. I loved my first cup of coffee today. I loved the spring freshness of the air as I worked to clean up my yard. I even love the twinges in muscles that tell me that I used them! Truth is, I don’t want to die. In fact, some training I’ve received tells me that one should be concerned and take action when a person speaks of wanting to die.

So I get the transcendence thing. But I’m not going there. Today I will be celebrating something I think is far better. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is empirical evidence that my bodily resurrection is possible, and that of my parents, and all those I love who have hoped in Christ. I am celebrating the hope that one day I will see them in all their physical glory, that I will be seen with a glory I’ve never had before, and above all, that I will see the glory of the risen Christ. Oh, what a day that will be!

Paradoxes: Dying to Live

I’ve been thinking of late of some paradoxes of life. Paradoxes are ideas that seem apparently contradictory and yet are true. One of these is at the heart of my faith. It is the idea that to live, you must die. To try to hold onto your life is to lose it. Only if you lose it will you gain it. Jesus put it this way, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:23-25).

The problem with this paradox is that to test its truth, one has to believe in resurrections. In our modern world, when you die, you just die. Period. And so it seems to make sense to hold onto life as long as you can. The only question is, what kind of life are you holding onto? Yesterday, I reviewed Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, the story of Binx Bolling and a life of quiet, middle-class desperation. And I wonder, is this the kind of life we are holding onto–one of acquiring more things and experiences and wealth in our early years, so that we can buy retirement condos and play golf into senescence? Maybe we sprinkle in some service to humanity and philanthropy. Yet the story is just about us, about living life “my way” (in the words of the old Sinatra song), until we die and are forgotten.

I wonder if at least for some of those who come to faith as adults, it is an awakening from this desperately comfortable zombie-like existence. It is recognizing that we really need resurrection, and for that to take place, first we must really die to running our own lives, to making our selves supreme. This seems hard. But isn’t this what we do when we go under the knife for a major surgery for a life-threatening condition? We could die, but if we do not undergo the surgery, we will. This is what following Jesus means–to die to directing my own life to follow the direction of another.

I’ve been on this journey most of my life and it is still hard. Jesus speaks of taking up the cross daily. At present, one of the things this means is shifting attention in my work from some of the things I’ve really loved to some necessary but less glamorous “behind the scenes” work that I know how to do and may multiply our work in the long term. It involves a kind of dying but what I’ve also thought about as I begin to lean into this change is the promise of new life that could not be had any other way. It means living afresh into the paradox that is at the heart of the gospel.

I end with a quote I first heard years ago by Jim Eliot, a missionary martyred in South America by a tribe who eventually found faith, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”